Legendary performer Taylor Mac and musical director Matt Ray’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music broke ground with its monumental scope and vision, earned the duo a slew of awards (including a Pulitzer Prize nomination) and became the subject of a fascinating HBO documentary made by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman which premiered at Tribeca 2023. Now, the pair have reunited with co-director Niegel Smith (along with co-director and choreographer Faye Discoll) and visionary costume designer Machine Dazzle, to create another ambitious production. Bark of Millions puts the focus on queer history and history-makers in a four-hour long celebration featuring 55 original songs by Mac and Ray (marking next year’s 55th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising), performed by an ensemble of 22 artists from around the world. The show, which world premieres at the Sydney Opera House on October 20th, 2023 as part of its own 50th Anniversary lineup, isn’t simply a concert, but the arrival of an exciting new addition to the queer musical canon.
Ahead of the premiere, The Queer Review’s Chad Armstrong spoke exclusively with Niegel Smith and Faye Driscoll about what we can expect from this pioneering piece.
Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: How was the show conceived? Did Taylor Mac come to you with it fully formed?
Niegel Smith: “The piece was conceived over a number of years. Taylor first told me about it back in 2019. Taylor and Matt had written a song about Sylvia Rivera and shared it with me, just as a friend. Then in the summer of 2021, Taylor approached me about being part of the directing team of the show. At that point they had written about 18 songs.”
“Faye and myself really supported Taylor and Matt as they put the frame around the piece. There were lots of Zoom calls, and there was a time when we met once a week for 90 minutes for about 6 or 7 weeks to go through the whole show and think about the dramaturgy of it and how it might exist on the stage.”
Faye Driscoll: “Those weekly Zoom meetings were in the thick of the pandemic, so the fantasizing was so powerful and necessary. The conversations sprawled from the very personal, to the political and the fantastical; to questions like, ‘what would be the iconography be for our queer version of a MAGA hat?'”
“Of course, when the rubber hit the road things shifted, but a lot of those glimmers of a bunch of queers stuck at home dreaming of being together again are still in there. The isolation helped drive this dream that Taylor began.”
Each song in the show is inspired by a different queer forebearer throughout world history, can we expect a linear historical work that moves through the years like 24-Decade… did with music history?
Niegel: “Oh, this is not linear! This is a quest around a sense of being. So a song that’s been written about a progenitive queer god singing themselves into existence is right next to one about a modern house DJ!”
This isn’t simply a concert, what can we expect in terms of theatricality and how the music is physically embodied on the stage?
Niegel: “It is a concert, but what is music but an invitation to move? The minute you make a sound your body moves to make the sound. Expect dance; performance art; people just listening to the singing; props; and costume to create queer pageantry. In fact, it’s more pageant work than theatre I’d say.”
Faye: “It’s a parade trance extravaganza! It’s storytelling in the grand living room of queer history. It is the ensemble expressing their doubt, rage, vulnerability, beauty, and power; and a searching for how to be together. It explores, ‘What does it mean to have a queer spirituality?’ ‘How are we queer?’ ‘What is queerness?’ And, ‘How do we convert the audience to become more queer?'”
Taylor has spoken about how going to church on Sundays when growing up reinforced a world that was inherently “non-queer” and that the songs in Bark of Millions are a release from those “years of harm”. Does the show have a spirituality of its own?
Faye: “For me, the work is very spiritual in an undogmatic way, in a way that I want to be spiritual myself. The work is creating a mythology. It is calling in the ancestors, lifting up the progeny in the room. It’s an enchantment, an entrancement, a questioning. It’s a spirituality full of doubt and arguments. It’s saying that we’ve always been here, we’ve always existed, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Why premiere in Australia, what does the Sydney Opera House bring to the equation?
Niegel: “Oh my God, why not premiere at the Sydney Opera House?! What it brings to the equation is the epicness of the Opera House’s Concert Hall which means it can be presented at the scale that it deserves. We have 55 original songs inspired by queer folks throughout history being birthed into the canon, so yes, that should happen at the Sydney Opera House at that scale!”
Niegel, you’ve worked with Taylor a few times, notably on the day-long A 24-Decade of Popular Music. This new show also seems like another massive undertaking. Why did you want to work with Taylor on such a massive scale again?
Niegel: “Well, in some ways this is a lighter lift. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was 24 hours long, so to be working at four hours is almost luxurious! It’s still a durational work, but it’s different. I love working at this scale because it allows one to show the heterogeneity inside our queer community. I love what happens to us as makers and as an audience when we give over to a work of duration in a way that breaks through. After a certain point it begins to work on you in a different kind of way, there’s an accumulation of experience.”
What should audiences expect?
Faye: “You can expect to be at a really good hang in a fabulous living room of some extremely amazing and talented artists that are bringing in the ghosts of several ancestors, telling you stories and bringing up and out your own queerness. You can expect a really good time and we hope you can sink into the music and listen to your body and move your body when you need to. You can go to the bathroom when you need to and come back and be in a collective trance with us.”
Niegel: “They should expect to find an international group of queers costumed in incredible Machine Dazzle looks in search of making wonderful music together. There are these phenomenal songs written by Taylor and Matt. Matt has a brilliant ability to write across genres, so there is a wide range of styles all centred around queer figures. Some epic, some intimate, some that are great to dance to, and some that rush over you. Audiences should expect to be surprised and moved.”
After immersing ourselves in Bark of Millions for four hours, what do you want the audience to think or feel as they leave the Opera House?
Faye: “I’m imagining the audience to be moved, awakened, questioning, looser, and more queer.”
Niegel: “I hope they feel surrounded by love.”
By Chad Armstrong
Bark of Millions receives its World Premiere at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Australia from October 20th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now.
Lyrics and Direction by Taylor Mac. Music and Musical Direction by Matt Ray. Performed by Ari Folman-Cohen, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, Chris Giarmo, Dana Lyn, El Beh, Greg Glassman, Jack Fuller, Joel Mateo Ramos, Jules Skloot, Le Gateau Chocolat, Lisa “Paz” Parrott, Machine Dazzle, Mama Alto, Marika Hughes, Matt Ray, Sean Donovan, Stefan Fae, Steffanie Christi’an, Taylor Mac, Thornetta Davis, Viva DeConcini, Wes Olivier.
Main image photo credit: Willa Folmar.