words Bill Millard
A New York musical about city planner Robert Moses proves that urban theory can be pop entertainment.
Think you know what propels history – technology, cultural evolution, the dialectic of material interests? Bet you didn’t know about the global Masonic cabal and Jane Jacobs’ croissants. Robert Moses: master builder, power broker, or holy martyr? (All three.) Le Corbusier speaks comedy French and has visions. Cityscapes conceal Masonic patterns. FDR and Goebbels were collaborators, arranging the Second World War as a slum-clearance project. Welcome to history according to Les Freres Corbusier, a neo-dadaist theatrical group.
Urban planning seems an unlikely topic for a musical, but the audience for architectural inside jokes is large enough for “Boozy” to sell out its initial run before opening night. Even with a brush-up on The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s scathing biography, I watched punchlines whiz by like traffic on Moses’ infamous expressways.
But for all its geeky erudition, “Boozy” is an elaborate ludibrium, a hoax perpetrated by another cabal: the struggle between top-down planning and bottom-up emergence as surreal conspiratorialism. That this battle can sustain a play with so much undergraduate silliness is heartening. Perhaps the success of “Boozy” proves that architects really are the new rock stars.
New Yorkers know Moses primarily as a builder and a villain. Never elected to any office, he parlayed appointed positions into untrammeled power to build the region’s infrastructure. He gave the public parks, housing, highways, and the Lincoln Center. For anyone who disagreed, his contempt was ferocious, often racist. Fond of tough-guy mottos involving breaking eggs to make an omelette, Moses “got things done”, including keeping carless citizens off his public beaches by placing overpasses too low for buses. Vast sections of the city became the eggs for his concrete omelettes.
The Moses-as-monster narrative is so pervasive that Les Freres Corbusier can usefully anatomise him only through a contrarian strategy, recasting him as messiah. Urbanist Jane Jacobs correspondingly becomes a glibly unhinged banshee, easily manipulated by the shadowy Masons. The clash over Boozy’s legacy between Moses and Jacobs isn’t enough to support the ideas in question, but the framing devices and set pieces (newscasts, ghostly visitations, documentary talking heads, a courtroom climax) take up the slack; whether Moses or Jacobs carries the day ultimately doesn’t matter. Manipulation itself takes centre stage. We Americans are wild for conspiracies. Nothing as disorderly as interest-group politics will do; we need Masons secretly pulling the strings. The planner’s tools have to follow the cryptic math of some grand design, and if that sounds absurd, how better to make sense of it than through absurdism?
Only in the finale, “Save the World,” do Les Freres betray some critique of the impulse that led Moses to disfigure so much of New York: “Change, change the world. / Bisect the city. / Carve up the sidewalks, the zoo, / Bid Harlem adieu, / So long, SoHo too / Who needs a view / When a thru-way will do?” And onward our unelected leaders drive, as the rest of us hope each mad scheme is just another ludibrium, perhaps less lethal than ludicrous. The occasional counter-hoax may be all we have left. “Boozy” provides a fine funhouse mirror for whatever today’s Moses Men are substituting for nature.