Quintessentially, quixotically queer: Taylor Mac brings "Bark of Millions" to Berkeley

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 13, 2024
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Taylor Mac (center) and the cast of 'Bark of Millions'  (photo: Daniel Boud)
Taylor Mac (center) and the cast of 'Bark of Millions' (photo: Daniel Boud)

Is Taylor Mac's "Bark of Millions" a pop concert? A drag show? Rock opera? Political theater? It's all of the above, and then some.

But according to the mad maximalist MacArthur fellow who, along with composer Matt Ray, dreamed up the four-hour spectacle which makes its west coast debut in a Cal Performances presentation in Berkeley from February 23-25, it all began with a parade.

Actually, befitting the Blessed Excess aesthetic of the man who created and performed 2016's 24-hour "24-Decade History of Popular Music," it began with two parades.

Taylor Mac in 'Bark of Millions' (photo: Daniel Boud)  

"The catalyst for 'Bark' was in 2019, when World Pride was held in New York," Mac told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview.

"There was all sorts of controversy over the parade, and it ended up splitting in two. There was the anti-capitalist queer march, and the capitalist gay parade with all the floats and corporate advertising, the gogo boys and the Coca-Cola logos.

"The activists told everyone to wear black. So, of course," Mac said, rolling his eyes, "lots of people ran to H&M to buy black jeans and t-shirts and look homogenous."

Always a contrarian to conformity, Mac continued.

"Why can't activism be fun and sexy? I like floats. And I like the colorful mess after the end of a parade. Frivolity and silliness can be a part of activism. I mean, one of the greatest moments of political activism I can remember is when protestors pulled a giant condom over Jesse Helms' house."

Mac refers to the 1991 ACT UP/Treatment Action Group's action when a group of gay men, led by Peter Staley, unrolled an enormous inflatable rubber over the moralistic senator's Arlington, Virginia home. It was emblazoned with the phrase: "A condom to stop unsafe politics. Helms is deadlier than a virus" and it made national television news.

"'Bark of Millions'," explained Mac, "is meant as a sort of re-integration of the two parades."

Taylor Mac (center) and the cast of 'Bark of Millions' (photo: Daniel Boud)  

Queered vs queer
After culminating his "24-Decade" project with the round-the-clock performance which the New York Times critic Wesley Morris called "one of the great experiences of my life" and which is the subject of a streaming documentary on HBO (by San Francisco filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman), Mac continued to cogitate on that show's 240 songs, which ranged from "Yankee Doodle" to "Where the Boys Are" and "Born to Run."

"They were songs that were part of the canon," Mac said. "We queered them, but they weren't queer songs to begin with. I felt like there were actually very few songs out there that were written as open, not-coded expressions of queer life and queer culture. Where were the songs to convey all of that pain and celebration and survival? And seeing that lack, Matt and I wanted to do our part to address it. We wrote 55 songs, one for every year since Stonewall. And every year moving forward, we're going to add another one."

Mac attested to the finite aspect of his new show.

"We're not going to go on the road and perform them year after year, but the songs will exist for others to perform and sing. As a side project, I'm trying to raise money to produce a book with all the lyrics and sheet music."

Muses and collaborators
The title of each song in "Bark of Millions" is the name of a queer figure from world history, running a gay gamut from Oscar Wilde to Margaret Cho. But the show is very much not a Google search set to music.

"Most of the songs aren't literally about the people," said Mac. "We're not trying to teach their life stories or to save them from erasure. That's not this project. They're our muses."

Taylor Mac and Matt Ray in 2018's 'Holiday Sauce' (photo: Sarah Walker)  

Mac's collaborative process with Ray on the show was akin to the way lyricist Bernie Taupin traditionally worked with Elton John. After writing the lyrics as a sort of poem on his own, he would send them to Ray, who would have his way with them.

"I really never tell Matt what I want him to do," Mac explained. "I trust him totally. I make an offering of lyrics to him, and then he makes an offering of music to me."

Like Mac, Ray draws on a cornucopia of influences, weaving pop, jazz, blues, opera and even electronica into his compositions, sometimes incorporating multiple genres within a single song.

While Mac willingly runs with almost everything Ray comes up with, he says that the nature of arranging, orchestrating and rehearsing a song organically leads to revisions.

"Every one of these songs has been crafted within an inch of its life over the course of the creative process," said Mac. "That's theater. It's a collaborative form. If you want your vision not to change, don't work in theater."

Mac collaborates in a similar fashion with his longtime costume designer, Machine Dazzle, whose kaleidoscopic sartorial follies have become a visual hallmark of Mac's shows.

In a 2018 interview with the Bay Area Reporter prior to Mac's "Holiday Sauce" shows at the Curran Theatre, Dazzle explained that Mac "doesn't tell me how to do the job...I get to make the decisions. The costumes are in tune with what Taylor wants to say but...I'm a conceptualist, the costumes are full of ideas."

Mac, Ray and Dazzle, who also performs in "Bark of Millions," have worked together for years and find that they can easily get on the same creative wavelength. In "Bark of Millions," they corral more than 20 other singers and musicians into their vision.

Unlike "The 24-Decade History of Popular Music," in which Mac was the lead vocalist throughout, "Bark" assembles an eclectic crew of singers from theater, opera and rock backgrounds who move in and out of the spotlight in what amounts to a free-form musical variety show, radically shifting tones from tune to tune.

"There's no narrative," says Mac. "It's song after song after song. One after another for four hours. No banter. You don't have to stay for the whole time, but it becomes more profound the longer you hang out with it. It's a meditation on queerness. It requires a lot of different voices and a lot of different perspectives."

So if you go, please stick around. You wouldn't want to rain on his parade.

'Bark of Millions,' February 23-25. $37-$168. Zellerbach Hall, Spieker Plaza, Berkeley. (510) 642-9988. www.calperformances.org

The 'Bark of Millions Fan Deck,' with 56 pages of artwork inspired by the many songs in the production, is available for sale at each show, and via download at www.barkofmillions.com

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