Years ago, Gail Zappa, the late Frank Zappa’s wife, sat on a floor with Todd Yveka and Ali Askin, two of Frank’s prized musical assistants, with pages and pages of music spread out across a large room. Line by line, note by note, dot by dot they translated and arranged Frank’s scribble into what was always meant to be the orchestral suite, 200 Motels. Gone was the rock and roll and other pieces that were conformed to fit 200 Motels, the 1971 concert film/psychedelic romp. What remained was a cohesive core. While it was performed thirteen years ago at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, the version that the LA Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing for the tenth anniversary of the Walt Disney Concert Hall on October 23rd is something that was a long time in the making.
“This score is more refined and it is actually very close, if not exact, to all the notes Frank actually wrote, in the order that he wrote them,” said Mrs. Zappa, “and that’s what we’re presenting.” More recently, Pete Griffin, the bassist for Dweezil Zappa’s project, Zappa Plays Zappa, helped bring the project to completion by preparing the score for presentation to one of the nation’s largest orchestras. “The music for 200 Motels was originally intended for a piece called Music for the Queen’s Circus,” recalled Mrs. Zappa, but when this opportunity presented itself to Zappa, he repurposed some of the music. “This is a normal way of approaching things,” explained Mrs. Zappa. “You use what you’ve got and you add to it to make a whole piece.”
Choosing Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels felt like a natural fit for director James Darrah and VP of Artistic Planning for the LA Phil, Chad Smith. “They wanted to choose something that was sentimental,” said Darrah. “This composer had such a presence in LA.” One of the piece’s earliest performances was at the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA in May of 1970, and Zappa spent most of his life in and around the Los Angeles area.
200 Motels is more than just an orchestral performance. It’s more than a theatrical performance. If you are timid about minimalist compositions, the humor and brashness will draw you in, and if you are a fan, you will get to see a modern master’s work performed as he originally conceived it. The show has a little bit of everything. ”It doesn’t fall into any one category of presentation or style or staging,” said Darrah. “It’s got a large amount of possibility of how you can stage it and how you can present it.”
Sharing the stage with the LA Phil will be some musicians who were known for playing with Frank Zappa and/or his sons over the years. Most notably is Ian Underwood, a multi-instrumentalist who performed with Zappa in the later years in the Mothers of Invention from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s. Scott Thunes, a bassist from Zappa’s later years, affectionately knighted as the “Clonemeister” (he stood in for Zappa and rehearsed with the band when Frank was away) will also be performing, along with the drummer for Zappa Plays Zappa, Joe Travers.
The show will feature characters from the movie, including Jeff Taylor as Larry the Dwarf, Rich Fulcher as Cowboy Burt and Matt Marks in the role of Mark Volman. The Zappas’ youngest, Diva, will also perform as Janet. They and others will interact with the orchestra, which is the main character itself. “We’re staging it, but we’re staging it because Frank had very specific instructions in the score about what he wanted the characters to be doing,” explained Smith. The large stage will be practically overflowing with a 40-piece choir, twelve soloists, a seven-piece rock band and an 80-member orchestra, including an enormous percussion section. Some of the seats in the hall had to be removed to accommodate the musicians and performers.
Although the rock and roll songs like “Mystery Roach” and “Magic Fingers” have been omitted, Mrs. Zappa is advocating to include “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” as a tribute to Jimmy Carl Black. Black, who died in 2008, was a long-time member of the Mothers of Invention and others of Frank’s bands’ incarnations.