My Favorite Revolution: The Musical

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Apr 12, 2008

My Favorite Revolution: The Musical

The Paris Commune
A Play with Music by Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman
At the Public Theater through April 20

In Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery, near the graves of rocker-poet Jim Morrison and writer Gertrude Stein, stands the Mur des Fédérés—the Wall of the Communards. On May 28, 1871, against that wall, the French Army shot 147 defenders of the Paris Commune, the world’s first—albeit short-lived—socialist-anarchist revolution.

For a few short weeks this April, the Commune lives again at the Public Theater, where the Civilians, a New York production company that “develops original projects based in the creative investigation of actual experience,” has created The Paris Commune, the musical.

Making a musical out of the triumphs and tragedies of class struggle is a tricky business (just ask Bertolt Brecht), requiring skillful piloting between triviality and didacticism. But if the Public and the Civilians haven’t reached Brechtian heights, the Commune’s posters, broadsheets, letters, speeches, and songs (including, of course, “The Internationale”) tell a stirring tale, especially juxtaposed with the diatribes of the French government that eventually brought an end to the Commune and killed the Communards.

Opening with a bare-bones summary of the events of 1870-1871—the Franco-Prussian War and the increasingly dire conditions that made Parisians dare to “[control] their own lives”—the play then recreates a performance one night in May, 1871, at which the chanteuse La Bordas (Kate Bourdeke) sings “La Canaille,” a celebration of the “lowest of the low,” the rabble—in this translation, the scum.

Enter the scum: The poor and hungry who turned Paris for two months into a utopian democracy. Some are famous: the feminist-anarchist Louise Michel (Jeannine Serralles), and Karl Marx’s emissary, Elisabeth Dmitrieff (Nina Hellman); others lived and died, their names unknown, like a baker (Jeremy Shamos), who works all night and guards the Commune’s cannon by day, and his dressmaker wife (Aysan Celin), who protects the cannons by throwing herself between them and the Army.

The actors don’t so much inhabit the characters as declaim their words, but the words have power. “This is the socialist revolution,” writes Dmitrieff to Marx. “If we can succeed here, Paris will lead the world to the future.”

So do the splendidly sung songs, in which, notes the narrator, “the Commune survives,” from the tender “Cherries of Spring” (which became a student anthem a century later) to the sardonic “God of the Bigots,” by Eugène Pottier (who also wrote “The Internationale”). A possibly superfluous history of the can-can, interwoven with the Commune’s, does at least infuse an extra dose of the energy of the canaille.

The so-called American Revolution—the least revolutionary revolution in the history of the Americas—is celebrated in song and story; the Commune gets rather less attention. This musical could help redress that balance.

The Paris Commune is at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan, until April 20 ( , 212-539-8500). Tickets are largely sold out (itself an interesting phenomenon), although with enough demand, the Public could extend the run or bring the play back. The Civilians will hold a benefit featuring a sequel to The Paris Commune May 12 at 9 PM, Element Nightclub, 225 E. Houston St. at Essex St./Ave. A, Manhattan (, 212-730-2019).

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