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UCLA

200 Motels: Bruins Help Bring Quirky Frank Zappa Show to Life

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By Jesy Odio '15

Published Oct 15, 2013 8:00 AM


Part of the tenth anniversary celebration of Disney Hall, the event included performances by the L.A. Philharmonic and Master Chorale.

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The production promises to transform Disney Hall.
Rendering by Cameron Jaye Mock and Emily MacDonald

It’s all about timing. A group of alumni and a professor from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT) can agree on that as they worked together to stage the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The production of the self-taught musician and composer’s work was part of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In order to finally make Zappa’s iconoclastic piece a reality, director James Darrah '10 worked with a number of Bruins. Cameron Mock MFA ’11 and Emily MacDonald ‘13 were assisting the production team as scenic and lighting designers, respectively. Sheila Vand BFA ’06 performed onstage alongside Zappa’s daughter, Diva, and Emmy winner Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko was in charge of costume design.

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Frank Zappa, photographed by jlacpo.

Since Zappa’s original musical concept had never been realized, Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, proposed to give the score its long-awaited world premiere as part of the hall’s anniversary. “I think they were looking for something in Los Angeles,” Darrah explains, “but that wasn’t sentimental about the building."

A couple of other attempts to perform Zappa’s piece with a live symphony orchestra did not run so smoothly. In 1970, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a partial reading at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The performance was a great success, but Zappa was vocal about his dissatisfaction with the orchestra’s ability to perform his compositions accurately. The following year, the Royal Albert Hall in London canceled the performance because of the score’s crude humor and obscenities.

It was in 1971 that Zappa stunned film audiences with his first musical avant-garde film, 200 Motels. The 90-minute film serves as a platform to showcase a portion of Zappa’s score, also titled 200 Motels. Like much of Zappa’s music, the picture is eccentric, almost undecipherable, and hard to categorize as one single cinematic or musical genre. Ultimately formatted as a surrealist documentary, the movie centers on Zappa’s band, Mothers of Invention, as the musicians gradually grow insane in the town of Centerville, Ohio. Along with Ringo Starr and folk singer Theodore Bikel, the London and Royal philharmonic orchestras also appear in Zappa’s quirky cinematic creation.

Darrah describes how the subliminal multi-dimensionality of the composition lent itself to Disney Hall’s 360-degree concert space. “The set design was meant to acknowledge and not cover up the architecture of the hall, but also to be faithful to what Frank wrote in the score—which has very specific video requirements but leaves a lot of flexibility for the room.”

The Zappa family was deeply involved in the preparation of the performance. Gail, Zappa’s widow, wanted the production based on faithful interpretation of the score, Darrah says. "She really allowed it to come to life based directly on the music."

It has been 20 years since Frank Zappa died. “The second best thing to having Frank Zappa sitting in the room,” says Darrah, “was to have Gail and Diva there.”

The production premiered on Wednesday, October 23, at 8:00 PM. Salonen led the entire performance.

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