Even those familiar with the work of Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the duo behind Obie and Tony-award winning musical Passing Strange, might find a description of their newest song cycle Wagner, Max! Wagner! completely outlandish. A piece exploring the music of Richard Wagner and the Blues. Yes, that is Richard Wagner of The Ring Cycle and Tristan und Isolde — we are, after all at The Kennedy Center. But the result is anything but ridiculous.
Commissioned by The Kennedy Center in honor of Wagner’s 200th birthday in 2013, Wagner, Max! Wagner! takes these two opposing musical genres and gleefully collages them with song, poetry, spoken word, and video art by Joan Grossman. The frontman and narrator is the effusive Stew, who has gathered a band of thirteen musicians and vocalists called The Wagner Problem. While Stew and Rodewald have written the songs, with additional text from Freya Stewart, The Wagner Problem musicians each have a significant part in shaping the music. Their instruments range everywhere from traditional drums and keyboard, to a cello, bassoon, accordion, and even a sitar. Each musician has their share of impressive solos throughout the evening, showcasing the true talent of the band.
Stew and The Wagner Problem present a punny and irreverent take on the infamous German composer’s life. Richard Wagner (pronounced in German as Vahhg-ner) is fashioned into the famous, fictional Blues musician Dick Wagner (pronounced as American-ly as possible: WAG-ner), taking every lewd pun opportunity such a first name offers. And speaking of lewd, that’s the name of one of Dick’s saucy compatriots: Lewd-vig, an allusion to King Lugwig II of Bavaria, one of the actual Wagner’s greatest patrons and benefactors. Dick is no king himself, however: he’s been married so many times, he created The Ring Cycle. And I haven’t even gotten to his backup singers, Bessie Smith and Brunnhilde.
This bizarre depiction is good for more than just puns, though. It strikes a fascinating parallel between Wagner and Blues music, heretofore completely unexamined. The biggest hypothesis set forward is that both Wagner and the Blues are so tethered to their respective unsavory histories that it can be difficult to separate the popular mythology from the actual music.
Perhaps one of the most divisive cultural figures ever, Wagner has long been tied to German antisemitism and the rise of Nazism. Though Wagner was clearly not himself a Nazi (he died in 1883, years before Hitler was even born), his 1850 essay titled Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), was aggressively antisimetic and claimed that Jews were incapable of expressing true passion, thus disabling them from writing music or poetry.
Many years later, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf about his passion for Wagner’s music, which became a rallying point for nationalist movements across Germany. Whether Wagner’s music was misappropriated or not, it is nearly impossible to separate from this dark history. As explored by Stew in the song “Wagner Problem,” blasting Beethoven or Stravinsky on a Sunday morning might earn you the monikers “cultured” or “quirky,” but playing Wagner could cause someone to question your morality.
In parallel, Stew postulates that Blues music, originating in African-American (often slave) communities, has been largely disowned by the African-American middle class after the rise of jazz as the “music of a nation”. Blues, according to Stew, is too raw, too depressing, too lower class. Associating yourself with Blues is implicitly associating yourself with slavery, just as associating with Wagner means condoning Nazism.
Stew says that he originally began writing a piece that tried to undo this psychology by separating the myths and histories from the music. The plea he repeats over and over is “The artist is human/ The artist is basically just another jerk/ The artist is not their work.” In the course of working on the piece however, he discovered it simply wasn’t possible, because the history is not just collective memory, it is stored in the music itself.
The strength of Stew & The Wagner Problem lies in their blatant juxtapositions. Wagner, Max! Wagner! examines these numerous contradictions not by smoothing them over, but by shouting them out. The mood and format of the piece is itself a contradiction: at one minute the audience is at a concert rocking out along with the band, the next in a theatre watching a performance. These dissonances create the harmony of form perfectly mirroring content.
Stew is quick to clarify that this piece is not necessarily meant to be educational or to spell out the connections between Wagner and the Blues, but it is rather these artists’ exploration of the entanglements between the two. A work-in-progress that will be different each night, as the musicians improvise, develop, and experiment on stage. With so much to learn with every new iteration, you’ll wish you could see it three or four times.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Wagner, Max! Wagner! plays through Saturday, September 26 at 7 pm in the Terrace Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. To purchase tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase online.