October 26, 2006
The operatic model of a punk rock major satire
Mixing punk rock and opera may be about as heretical as it gets, yet that is precisely what Julien Nitzberg, librettist and lyricist of "The Beastly Bombing," now playing at the Steve Allen Theater, has done.
Despite being the grandson of Austrian composer Hans Knauer, who conducted his own operetta, "Eva," in front of Kaiser Franz Josef, the Bronx-born Nitzberg was first drawn to the punk scene. He sported a mohawk in high school where he founded a literary journal titled Piss With Ink. He played "noise guitar with the emphasis on guitar" for a "hard-core punk band in the line of the Dead Kennedys."
"We played superhard, superfast, superloud," Nitzberg said, pointing out that his band also earned the reputation of being "allegedly a Republican punk band" because they wrote songs like "We Love Reaganomics."
No one will accuse him of being a Republican any longer, nor will anyone miss the irony, indeed sarcasm, of "The Beastly Bombing," a mock Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired opera that lampoons our current Republican president and his two daughters, while also poking fun at white supremacists, Al Qaeda and Chasidic Jews.
Yes, Nitzberg, who is Jewish, does not spare Jews from his wit and has even written one jaunty song with the refrain, "I hate the Jews." Stephen Schwartz, composer of "Pippin" and "Godspell," was apparently so offended by Nitzberg's politically incorrect opera that he referred to it as the "most morally unredeemable musical he had ever read." According to Nitzberg, Schwartz said that he would try to prevent "The Beastly Bombing" from finding a venue.
Ultimately, Nitzberg did find a willing sponsor in Amit Itelman, artistic director of the Steve Allen Theater. Itelman embraced the musical's Sept. 11 parody, just as he had once embraced provocateur Bill Maher by producing "The Hollywood Hell House," a production that starred the host of "Real Time," who was famously fired by ABC after saying that the Sept. 11 pilots did not lack courage.
Just as former punk rocker Nitzberg has returned to his pedigree in opera, so has Roger Neill, who composed the music to "The Beastly Bombing." Neill had also grown up as "a thrasher" on guitar. "My heart is of a head banger," he said. Yet before finding the electric guitar at the age of 12, Neill had played flute and piano and began composing classical music at 10. Many years later, he got a doctorate in musical composition from Harvard.
Neill met Nitzberg in the mid-1990s, when Nitzberg was directing his own script for the film, "Bury Me in Kern County." The underground film, which the press material refers to as a "white trash black comedy," toured the festival circuit, playing at South by Southwest and Palm Springs among others. It represented the first collaboration between Nitzberg and Neill, who composed the score. Their present collaboration, "The Beastly Bombing," may make for a funnier evening than a night at the Improv or the Groundlings. Nitzberg, who believes that irony should never be dead under any circumstances, writes with a kind of literary diction that is rare in the theater. How often does one hear lines like "Ablophobia is fear of palindromes"? Or, "I'm agog, they don't know about ZOG"? ZOG stands for Zionist Occupation Government. It is the acronym used by the musical's two white supremacists and two Al Qaeda operatives, all of whom plan to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Their plans are interrupted when they fall in love with each other and with two ditzy presidential daughters, who introduce them to the drug Ecstasy.
Only Mel Brooks has tread this far, but Brooks didn't have his president, unmistakable with his gray hair and fly-boy outfit as a George W. Bush prototype, dance a waltz with a lascivious gay Jesus. Nor did Brooks have a Catholic priest, wearing red women's underwear, speak openly of molesting young boys.
In short, Nitzberg and Neill skewer every sacred cow imaginable while writing a series of catchy, raucous tunes. Some titles like "I am the Bravest President" conspicuously recall Gilbert & Sullivan ("I am the monarch of the sea"), but the songs are far too subversive to be other than a wry homage given "Julien's crazy lyrical content," Neill said.
A "superannuated Echo Park punk rocker" with an "Old World Austro-Hungarian sensibility," in Neill's phrase, Nitzberg will always straddle the worlds of punk rock and opera. And he will never lose his sense of humor.
As Nitzberg said, "I want people at my funeral to be making jokes. I want them to put hoops in the water and afterward use my body to play Skee-ball."
"The Beastly Bombing" plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., through Nov. 18.
For tickets, call (800) 595-4849. Photo by Kim Gottlieb-Walker