A Marvelous Order opens abstractly. As the lights dim and a single female vocalist comes onstage to sing the prelude, geometrical figures begin to flash upon the unrisen curtain. There are squares and rectangles, convex pentagons, irregular quadrilaterals and big, bright, block-like shapes that are meant to be just that: blocks. This is a plan of a city, projected before us, the way an architect might draw it, the way an urban planner might see it.
How are we supposed to see it? This is the question posed throughout the course of the show, a two-act opera performed this past Saturday in a one-night-only pre-premiere on the main stage of the ’62 Center. A Marvelous Order tells the story of the legendary, decades-long clash between Robert Moses, one of the most powerful urban planners in American history, and Jane Jacobs, journalist and leader of the local people who rose to stop Moses from steamrolling, so to speak, over Washington Square Park and lower Manhattan in mid-20th century New York. A Marvelous Order is a story of road maps and typewriters, of highways and homes. It’s a story of two enormously influentially figures with two completely divergent philosophies.
But mostly, A Marvelous Order is a show about the life of a city – what it is, what it ought to be. It’s an unusual narrative for an opera to tell, perhaps, but it’s also, in an odd way, a fitting one. After watching the performance, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the tale of such an epic clash could be told without the operatic form and all the additional audiovisual effects this production has adduced to it.
The show presents its story through many different kinds of media. The video projections that open the prelude don’t disappear once the curtain comes up. Instead, three television screens sit onstage throughout the performance and play a continuous stream of videos of maps, architectural drawings, cartoonish images of stick people in stick cities and even documentary-style footage of real city-goers, walking and working and rushing, from one place to the next. The vocalists and dancers move in front of these screens, sometimes interacting with and even repositioning them. The cast similarly moves around the large white blocks and tall, two-part, white archway that are also onstage, as though continually engaged in the act of building. The difficulty of such an effort is suggested by the orchestral music that swells underneath the action and singing, full of staccato notes and sometimes-dissonant chords, a busy, bustling and at times almost anarchic force.
It’s to the credit of the creators of the show, three of whom are College alumni, that they’ve managed to combine these disparate elements – the libretto by Tracy K. Smith, the music by Judd Greenstein ’01, the choreography by Will Rawls ’00 and the animation design by Joshua Frankel ’02 – into such a vibrant, dynamic and ultimately cohesive whole. It’s not a perfect whole, to be sure – the first act is a bit slow compared to the second, and the long dance number at the performance’s end, while beautiful and moving, seems an odd departure from the tight-knit way in which dance is woven into the rest of the show. Still, it’s a unique combination and a compelling one.
A Marvelous Order is not just well-designed, but is also well-performed. Megan Schubert, in the role of Jacobs, quite literally hits all the high notes, and the deep, sonorous voice of Dashon Burton, in the role of Moses, is enough to make you love him, even though he’s supposed to be the villain. The supporting cast is also largely faultless, and the dancers move with a great deal of grace and skill.
In the end, it’s impossible not to be seduced by this play, to not be drawn into its story. You can’t help but be elated when Jacobs and her fellows emerge from the city council building in victory, can’t help but be moved by her vision of urban life as personal, consisting most fundamentally of the small and the specific, in the simple statement of one of her fellow protesters that “I live here.”
Of course, Moses isn’t entirely unsympathetic in the opera. The roads he authorizes cut through neighborhoods, slashing the city into innumerable intersections that show up in blood-red on the onscreen city maps. But if Moses’ plans cause pain, they aren’t intended to be incisions as much as arteries. Moses doesn’t want to destroy the city, but only make it more effective, efficient, more in tune with progress and the greater good. “This will make everyone happy,” the character sings at one point, of his grand, sweeping plans.
He’s wrong, of course. But then, though the opera is set six or seven decades in the past, the questions it raises – how to build a city, what makes a city right, what makes a city good – are ones we still grapple with today. A Marvelous Order ends with the cast members coming onstage all once, pushing the white blocks and dipartite archway together in a final, beautiful whole. It’s a gesture meant to represent the victory of the people over the planner, the citizen over the city official. It’s a symbolic act, but it’s also an unfinished one, because the city – whether it is New York or Boston or Buffalo or Los Angeles – is still imperfect, incomplete, but improvable.
The city is a living place, the opera seems to say, full of color and song, bright shapes and staccato notes, stepping and striding and striving. It’s a thing that can’t be built or planned or constructed singularly, but communally.
In other words, it’s not just the cast members that are called on, finally, to move the blocks. It’s us, too.