Magazine article The New Yorker

Moses Figures

Magazine article The New Yorker

Moses Figures

Article excerpt


Will Rawls was waiting in the Lorimer Street subway station one recent Sunday, trying to get to a rehearsal in Chelsea--Rawls is the choreographer for a new opera about Robert Moses, the dictatorial city planner, and Jane Jacobs, the populist city un-planner--when he had a thought. The L train wasn't coming, and pretty soon, with repairs threatening to suspend service between Brooklyn and Manhattan for more than a year, the train wouldn't be coming at all. "I was, like, this shit is always broken," Rawls said, after arriving in Chelsea. "I almost want Robert Moses 2.0 to come back and fix the M.T.A."

"That's a very human emotion, to want a Moses-like figure to come in and fix everything," Joshua Frankel, the opera's director, said.

"What did Moses do about public transit, anyway?" Rawls asked.

"Starved it of money," Frankel said, with a shrug.

The opera, "A Marvelous Order," which premieres next month, has two acts--"Robert Moses wouldn't fit inside a one-act play," Rawls said--and traces Jacobs's mid-century fights against Moses's attempts to build a four-lane road through the middle of Washington Square Park and a ten-lane crosstown expressway along Broome Street. Jacobs thought that Moses was trying to "Los Angelize" New York. Moses thought the only people opposing his plans were "a bunch of mothers."

"The requisite background reading took some time," Judd Greenstein, the opera's composer, said, referring to "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jacobs's four-hundred-page ode to city life, and "The Power Broker," Robert Caro's thirteen-hundred-page biography of Moses. "If you bring the physical book on the subway, people love talking to you," Frankel said, noting that few riders sided with Moses, save for a couple of Long Island residents wistful for his unrealized bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay.

An urban-planning opera is perhaps no longer strange--thanks, "Hamilton"--but it does present a number of challenges. The source material, for starters, isn't exactly "The Marriage of Figaro." "It's not easy to fit 'Lower Manhattan Expressway' into verse," Tracy K. Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who wrote the libretto, said. (Sample line: "We'll have to issue new bonds to cover these costs.") In the rehearsal, Greenstein coaxed a baritone who was playing an employee of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to pronounce "you" more like "youse," and deliberated on where to put the musical rest in the phrase "Interborough Parkway. …

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