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Ready for New Look at the 'Sky'? : Theater: The unusual song-play about social issues in L.A. has become a work in progress. It opens tonight in New York.

July 12, 1995|MARK SWED | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — The advance stories about the New York opening tonight of "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky"--the unusual song-play about social issues in Los Angeles told in popular song by composer John Adams, poet June Jordan and director Peter Sellars--tend toward diplomacy, calling the show's reception, at its premiere engagement in Berkeley in May, "mixed."

Some of the high-profile reviews, in fact, were stinkers. The Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer called it a mess. Time magazine thought that the show's multiculturalism got in the way of just about everything, including some good music. The New Yorker wondered whether a pop-music score--a radical departure for Adams, one of America's most celebrated composers of concert music and opera--could, by its very nature, address the serious issues in the lives of the characters.

The three collaborators do not necessarily agree with such criticisms--Sellars bristles at the multiculturalism carping; Adams thinks that the idea that popular music can't tell the story seems unreasonable--but, as Adams acknowledges, "We realized people didn't understand it, and that it had to be more direct."

And so, tonight, as part of Lincoln Center's Serious Fun! festival, an evolving song-play will be unveiled. There will be changes, large and small, in the libretto, in the music and, most radically, in the staging and decor.

To Sellars, who has been working day and night with Adams and Jordan on the revisions, that is simply part of the process. "For me," he said the other evening on the phone from his hotel room, "that's the great democratic tradition of the American musical, that the American public has participated in writing America's most loved musicals, in Philadelphia, in Boston. And that is the point."

Adams wasn't, at first, quite so sanguine about it--"I had worked a year on it and was exhausted, so I went into denial after the first night," he admits. But he also says that it really isn't so surprising that the show would need work, given that none of them had ever attempted a popular project like this before.

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"I think one of the most interesting components of the piece," Sellars concurs, "is that it is a form that never existed before. John, June and I are still discussing it as are the people who come to see it."

And Adams, like Sellars, also notes that it is entirely in keeping with this kind of show that it can be worked on--for his part he has written two new songs and rewritten a couple of scenes that he felt were not dramatically specific enough. He and Jordan, together, have tried to flesh out characters, especially a young cop who discovers he is gay.

For Jordan, who had anticipated a more Brechtian agitprop kind of production, there was also the sheer surprise (mostly good) of how the show turned out and, she, too, felt that certain aspects needed to be made clear. In a love scene between a Baptist minister and his girlfriend, for instance, she says that "it took the audience a while to realize that it took place in a church, and Peter and I thought it was important that folks know that."

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The material of the show has a very familiar Sellars feel to it--the interaction of seven young people of different ethnic and social backgrounds who begin the process of coming to know themselves through the trauma of the Northridge earthquake. The director claims that he was on good behavior at first--with surprisingly little directorial interference because he thought that the material was perfectly obvious. But now he says he has restaged about 60% of the show to make it far more visceral.

"I think that some of the reviews made it clear to me that so much of America is genuinely unaware of people and experiences of other types of people," he says. "So I thought it was really necessary to put a lot more information on stage. Now we'll have more of a sense of the context of the characters and we'll be able to perhaps be able to identify with them differently."

Despite the pop nature of the work, Sellars typically views it as grappling with serious contemporary issues. "The main thing is that this is a very important time in the life of this country," he says. "Really shocking things are happening every day. It is a battle, and we have to find a new language in which the next discussion is going to be conducted. The search for that language is difficult; you cannot use the terms that already exist and it's going to take us a while to find them. And that to me is what is most impressive about this piece. John and June are really looking for ways to engage in a discussion in this country. And we're going to keep working.

"I think the reason that there is so much conflict that surrounds the reception of this piece is because, of course, we're working on subject matter that people have very conflicted reactions on. And that to me is part of the job description of being an artist. You just have to be willing to put that out there."

Which leads to the obvious question: Why isn't a show about Los Angeles, created by West Coast artists, scheduled to play in Los Angeles? (After its performances through Sunday at Lincoln Center, it will travel through Europe for the next five months.)

No one in Los Angeles has asked for it, Adams answers. There are rumors, Jordan answers. I'm only thinking a day at a time, Sellars answers.

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