Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Abominable Showman, July 8, 2012

"Fuck all that...we're coming to Quebec!"

The Terror of the Rock Opera
On the eve of Roger Waters’ final-ever performance of The Wall on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, Bugs explores why Luc Plamondon’s futuristic Starmania fails miserably while Pink Floyd’s The Wall has aged brilliantly
By Richard Burnett
The very day al-Qaeda terrorists flew two jetliners into NYC’s World Trade Center on 9/11, Luc Plamondon was in Paris watching a one-night-only revival of his famous rock musical Starmania, in which terrorists bomb the 121st floor of the fictional Golden Tower skyscraper in Las Vegas.
“The cast was terrified,” Plamondon told me years later. “And the audience was dead silent at the end of the performance. It was amazing that Starmania had predicted 9/11. What I wrote [in Starmania] had become reality.”
Starmania, of course, is the famed 1978 rock opera that Quebecois lyricist Plamondon co-wrote with famed French songwriter Michel Berger.
To mark its 30th anniversary, L’Opéra de Montréal premiered the all-opera adaptation, Starmania Opera, in March 2009, starring African-Canadian soprano Marie-Josée Lord, whom I adore.
“She’s marvellous!” Plamondon agreed. “She plays the lead role, a [robotic] waitress in the Underground Café in a [totalitarian] world dominated by television. All of the play’s characters have dreams, and [the character] Ziggy’s dream is to star in the television show Starmania, which is like American Idol today.”
Ah yes, Ziggy the gay character.
I wonder who Ziggy is based on, where Plamondon got his inspiration. In addition to Starmania‘s classic hit Ce soir on danse (Á Naziland) memorably sung by Nanette Workman on the original soundtrack, the most beautiful song in Starmania is Un garçon pas comme les autres (Ziggy), or "A Boy Unlike the Others (Ziggy)", but best known simply as Ziggy. Céline Dion’s terrific version topped the charts a few years back, and I ask Plamondon if the song and character echo his own life.
“It’s just a character that I wrote,” Plamondon replies. “The guy had fallen in love with David Bowie and changed his name to Ziggy.”
I don’t want to talk about my personal life [coming out as a gay man] because it would be unfair on my partner

Whereupon I tell Plamondon that I too am a gay man and am interested in learning how Plamondon – now 70 – came of age as a gay man in the 1960s and 1970s, before AIDS and before Stonewall. Was it scary? Was it fun? How did it inform his work? 
But Plamondon flat-out refused to talk about any of that. 
“I don’t want to talk about my personal life [coming out as a gay man] because it would be unfair on my partner,” Plamondon says. “I am a very private man. Singers who are stars have public lives. I don’t sing my songs, so I’m entitled to a private life.”
Well, I went to the Montreal premiere of Starmania Opera at L’Opéra de Montréal and, I’m afraid to say, was deeply disappointed. In fact, I actually walked out at intermission because not only has Starmania not aged well (its futuristic vision now feels like a dated 1970s sci-fi movie) but its opera adaptation was – I’m sad to say – something of a joke. To my ear, pure opera it is not.
But one so-called “rock opera” that has aged extremely well is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which I saw Roger Waters perform in its entirety in Montreal this past June 26.
The Wall was just simply too large to tour

The original 1980 production of The Wall had been performed live-in-its-entirety just 29 times during Pink Floyd’s disastrous 1980 tour in support of the album and once in Berlin in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  
Prior to 2010, The Wall was just simply too large to tour, but new arenas and advances in touring technology solved that problem. The current tour of The Wall live has already played more than 150 shows around the world to over 1.6 million fans since 2010, including recent stops in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and, of course, Montreal
The tour will come to an appropriately epic finale with a huge concert July 21 on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. 
A press release promises this show will be bigger than the Berlin concert in 1990, and will boast a surround-sound system and a bigger-than-ever wall of over 250 metres, plus extra lighting, pyrotechnics and “many more surprises.”
“This is going to be completely unlike any of The Wall shows we've done anywhere else in the world,” Waters said in a statement.
As the likelihood of a Pink Floyd reunion becomes increasingly distant with each passing year, this final Roger Waters’ The Wall concert will also serve as good a Pink Floyd finale as any fan could ever hope for – and then some.
While Floyd’s iconic 1979 The Wall album dealt mainly with abandonment and personal isolation, the live performance has evolved from personal confession into a more troubling anti-war, anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarian narrative.
“Giving our governments too much power is a steep and slippery slope to tyranny,” Rogers told the audience the night I saw him in Montreal.
But that June 28 concert at Montreal’s Bell Centre was no downer: It kicked off with some major pyro and a plane  – yes, a plane – that crashed into an enormous wall of white bricks that stretched across the stage. That wall (which doubled as a video screen) rose brick-by brick, song-by-song, until eventually it finally hid Waters’ top-notch 12-member band (including Waters on bass guitar) by the end of the first act.
The second half began with a rousing version of Hey You played live behind – you guessed it – the wall, while Waters struck front-of-the-stage rock star poses worthy of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret which, incidentally, shares much with The Wall.
But Waters worked hard for the money (to wit, top ticket price in Quebec City is $199.50 while general admission tickets are $99.50), with grotesque marionettes and hallucinogenic multi-media projections worthy of Syd Barrett, not to mention a clean, crisp audio wall of sound that made sonic rock classics like Comfortably Numb absolutely soar.
The Wall tour back in 1980 lost millions

The inflated pig was also back for an encore – with messages like “Drink Kalishnikov vodka” printed on it sides – as Waters further fine-tuned The Wall, focusing his attacks on such targets as organized religion and rapacious multi-national corporations. During a thundering version of Run Like Hell aimed at corporate overlords, the screen flashed iPod-style phrases like “iTeach,” “iLearn,” “iBelieve,” “iPaint,” “iKill” and “iPay.”
Pink Floyd’s original, ill-fated The Wall tour back in 1980 lost millions, something Waters’ 2012 version most surely will not. New technology has transformed this rock opera into a fast-paced and seamlessly orchestrated spectacle for fans raised on MTV and weaned on video games.
For those who can’t get beyond The Wall’s hoary 1970s rock band origins, even Waters poked fun at himself before accompanying a younger video version of himself – filmed at Earls Court in 1980 – singing Mother. “This may even be narcissistic,” Waters cracked.
But in Montreal – even during this city’s maple spring/summer of discontent – Waters can pretty much do no wrong, not even after his famous onstage meltdown at Olympic Stadium in July 1977 during a Pink Floyd concert that is often cited as the catalyst for Waters writing The Wall.
“I was a miserable young man 30 years ago,” Waters said onstage. “I’m happier now.”
Fittingly, when Montrealers gave him a five-minute standing ovation, Waters wiped his eyes with his hand.
Roger Waters performs The Wall on The Plains of Abraham in Quebec City on July 21. Click here for more details and tickets.
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