Civilization and Its Discontents, the 1977 genre-bending musical stage production written and composed by Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman, not to be confused with Sigmund Freud’s more famous tome of the same title which may bend some ideas but has no music, was originally recorded in 1978 and reissued earlier this year by Labor Records. Whether the appropriation of Freud’s title is meant to suggest that the collaborators have something more in mind that satirizing elements of modern civilization, I leave to more analytic minds. As far as I’m concerned farcical socio-cultural satire is enough for me.
What form a work of art takes is always an important consideration; you don’t want to criticize a novel as though it were a sonnet, or a string quartet as though it were a symphony. In the liner notes to the original Nonesuch release, the composers take a lot of time discussing operatic traditions, operetta, and musical theater by way of explaining what they see themselves as doing as far as form is concerned. They see their work in the context of those operatic traditions where comic elements often turn up as serious critiques. Musical comedy may do the same thing, but it caters to a more popular sensibility, or at least it often does. In essence, it would seem that as far as Sahl and Salzman are concerned their work looks to take what they need from both traditions.
The music itself is either all over the place or, as New York Times critic Peter Davis called it back then, “a brilliant amalgam of jazz, pop, blues and classical forms.” The trouble with amalgams is that not everyone who is happy with an evening of jazz is equally happy with pop intrusions; and blues lovers aren’t necessarily going to love what they might hear as operatic caterwauling. But when it comes right down to it, operatic forms and musical ideas dominate here. This is clear from the show’s very opening notes. It may not be the opera of Puccini or Verdi, but opera it is. That is not to say that there aren’t these other formal elements scattered through the show, it is simply to say that pop elements are not emphasized.
This is not a highlights album. It includes the whole of the show, which is divided into scenes following an ABA structure. The first scene opens in Club Bide-A-Wee where the heroine Jill Goodheart and her boyfriend Derek have an argument and he leaves. Jeremy Jive arrives and tries to pick her up with a line something like: “Can you explain what Patti Smith means to you.” There is a lot of internal monologue, against the background of the club’s mantra: “If it feels good, do it.” The scene ends with a show-stopping jazz number.
The second scene is a farcical description of Jeremy’s attempts to seduce Jill in her apartment in the face of constant interruptions including the return of Derek. Jeremy and Derek discover a business connection involving a singing chicken. The third scene takes the trio back to the club for an absurdist finale.
Jill is played by Candice Earley, Derek by William Parry, and Jeremy by Paul Binnotto. Karl Patrick Krause plays Carlos Arachnid who seems to be something of a combination of club owner and master of ceremonies as he invites the audience into the club. This, with the exception of Parry, was the original cast of the off-Broadway production, which won an award as the best off-Broadway show of the year. It was recorded for broadcast on National Public Radio in 1980, I would assume with some of the language cleaned up.
Civilization and its Discontents has some very engaging music and dynamic performances. The show’s album manages to capture much of that dynamic appeal. In the end, though, I suspect that this is a musical that needs to be seen for best effect. The album is fine; a new production would be better.