New York City

Robert Moses Gets the Off-Broadway Rock Musical Treatment

But Jane Jacobs' motivations in opposing the "Power Broker" remain misunderstood.

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Last night, New York's Triad Theatre hosted a

Robert Moses, the musical
Jettyrecords.com

one-night preview performance of "BLDZR: The Gospel According to Moses," a new rock musical in the tradition of RENT and American Idiot that dramatizes Robert Moses' evolution "from a young idealist fervent with a desire to build the greatest city in the world to a power-insulated enemy of the people, corrupted, lost and alone."

The brainchild of Seattle native and self-described "grunge rock refugee" Peter Galperin, with a book written by Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin, and starring David Driver (who 20 years ago was an understudy in the original cast of RENT) as the Power Broker himself, the still-in-the-works show depicts the urban planner dreaming about re-shaping New York into a car-centric metropolis, conspiring with the powerful, dismissing any criticism outright, and trying to maintain a relationship with a woman he mostly ignores.

Addressing the audience before the show, Galperin explained that all the show's songs would be included in the performance, but only select "book" portions made it into last night's truncated preview, which is a shame, because those missing moments might have provided more context and clarity to the narrative.

Galperin added that "the verdict is still out on Moses," citing the construction of vital bridges and highways that helped make New York a 20th century economic powerhouse, but also the many neighborhoods destroyed in the process. 

Four actors portraying characters including Moses, Fmr. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and activist Jane Jacobs crammed onto the snug off-off-Broadway stage in front of a four-piece rock combo (featuring Galperin on guitar), while a narrator hunched in front of the stage to set each scene.

Moses, who for decades was the most powerful unelected official in the US, sings about "the view from my imagination," before Rockefeller coos about how "impressed" he is by Moses' "system…set up so everyone profits." What is meant by that line is unclear, but the gist seems to be that Rockefeller and other forces of capitalism and government approved of Moses' vision for the city and state which included public beaches, state parks, and the Triboro Bridge, all of which even Moses' detractors would admit were net positives for the public. 

The narrative gets shaky when Jane Jacobs enters the scene. The urban preservationist and author of The Death of Life of Great American Cities is widely credited with forcing Moses into his Waterloo battle over his plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Jacobs' beloved Greenwich Village neighborhood. Jacobs is seen being lectured by Rockefeller (who by now considers Moses a political liability) in a conversation that almost certainly never took place about her "commie ideology."

But Jacobs was no communist, having renounced her membership in the Federal Workers Union because "it was communist dominated." Moreover, her opposition to Moses wasn't based on sentimentality or populism; it was her philosophical aversion to top-down central planning and the collusion of government and commerce, which she saw as a potentially fatal threat to her home and her neighbors'.

Though she's now the patron saint of New York's anti-gentrification movement, she had faith in local economies, as opposed to supposedly benevolent forces in government, as the main drivers for maintaining the authentic soul of communities. Though she was undoubtedly "of the left" in her day, her preference for liberalized markets over the state would likely make her views "problematic," perhaps even beyond the pale, among today's left.

Another vignette depicts a journalist grousing over the Brooklyn Dodgers absconding to Los Angeles as an example of heartless greed, but the scene only momentarily alludes to Moses being the man most directly responsible for the end of Dem Bums' reign in Flatbush. As I noted last year in a post about Bernie Sanders crediting the Dodgers' move West for facilitating his socialist awakening, Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley actually tried for years to build a new stadium in Brooklyn. However, Moses forbade it, insisting on far-flung Flushing, Queens as the only acceptable destination. 

But like Sanders, the play eschews the "extraordinarily powerful and unaccountable bureaucrat chased businessman out of town when he insisted on uprooting the Dodgers from Brooklyn and dropping them on a landfill in Queens" narrative for one that prefers to hover around vague references to greed and local heartbreak. 

The play correctly nails Moses for his indifference to the neighborhoods he destroyed, even if some of the dialogue is a bit tin-eared and suspiciously Ayn Randian (representative examples: "You're getting teary-eyed over the non-productive members of society," and "Those who can build, build. Those who can't, criticize.")

Although Jacob's Greenwich Village is most oft-referred to, Moses' creation of the odious Cross Bronx Expressway, which eviscerated the once-idyllic neighborhood of East Tremont (and thus created what is now known as the South Bronx), is never mentioned. 

There are some undeniably catchy songs in BLDZR, particularly one where Jacobs (played by the fantastic Sara Jecko) sings about "the voice of the people," though too many instances of squarely-on-the-nose lyrics like, "He built so much, but now he's out of touch."

Interestingly, this isn't the only time the Moses v. Jacobs battle has been committed to a musically theatrical performance. The opera A Marvelous Order has been in the working stage for years, and looks set for a New York bow sometime later this year.

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  1. A musical about the life and times of Moses Malone would be a million times more interesting to me than one about Robert Moses.

    1. +fo’ fo’ fo’

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  3. You know who else didn’t like people named Moses?

    1. The pharaoh?

    2. The pigs, until they realized how he could help them?

  4. More New York Values – don’t even bother introducing Robert Moses to us yokels because of course everybody who’s anybody knows who that is, and who wouldn’t be interested in an off-off-Broadway production of a musical about the Creator of the Universe?

    1. At least he’s not reporting from the Cybermasturbation Conference in Las Vegas, which seems to account for 50% of Reason staffers’ travel budgets.

      1. You can pry Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s porn conference articles from my cold, dead hands.

        1. Euphemism, abstract, etc.

    2. More than half of the 2nd paragraph explains exactly who he was. And I’m guessing you already knew, didn’t you?

      1. I usually get about halfway through the headline before getting bored and jumping to the comments.

        1. I can’t even get halfway through a comment until I ju

    3. Robert Moses is an example of the evils of unfettered capitalism. When someone told me that, I really most sincerely let him have it.

  5. “”””from a young idealist fervent with a desire to build the greatest city in the world to a power-insulated enemy of the people, corrupted, lost and alone.””””

    So he did not change as he got older.

  6. Wow, Sanders’ arguments re: the Dodgers are retarded

    “The popular conception, both inaccurate and incomplete, is that greedy Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley never tried to stay in Brooklyn and absconded with the team at the first opportune moment he could. The Guardian quotes Sanders saying on a podcast that O’Malley’s move was “a brutal act which impacted Brooklyn in a very significant way.”

    But thanks to them moving LA got a baseball team. Why was it somehow ‘brutal’ to take one of three teams out of New York City and give one to LA?

    That’s fucking stupid. The brutal part of the Dodgers move was when government officials went into the poor, Mexican part of LA where the Dodgers wanted to build a stadium and beat the shit out of immigrants while eminent domaining their property.

    I guess it’s not too surprising that a socialist scumbag would think a business peacefully moving is more brutal than state agents stomping on poor people.

    1. Why was it somehow ‘brutal’ to take one of three teams out of New York City and give one to LA?

      Just tell Bernie it was just sports team redistribution. Why should just 1% of sports fans get to hoard so much of the big league baseball!?

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  8. Though she was undoubtedly “of the left” in her day, her preference for liberalized markets over the state would likely make her views “problematic,” perhaps even beyond the pale, among today’s left.

    I’m guessing if everything you say, the Eminent Domain-cheering left would absolutely hate her. It’s ALL ABOUT top-down planning.

    1. If everything you say is true. This is what happens when you work while H&Ring;.

  9. But like Sanders, the play eschews the “extraordinarily powerful and unaccountable bureaucrat chased businessman out of town when he insisted on uprooting the Dodgers from Brooklyn and dropping them on a landfill in Queens” narrative for one that prefers to hover around vague references to greed and local heartbreak.

    They’re artists, Anthony. That’s what sells tickets.

  10. If musicals on city planning are suddenly viable, when can I expect the Joe from Lowell rock opera?

    1. I’d rather watch Zoning Variance Hearing, the Musical.

    2. What’s interesting is Robert Moses has all of the earmarks that would make him beloved by modern progressives. Powerful unelected bureaucrat, heavy use of eminent domain leaning heavily towards “public purpose”, disdain for the ‘chaotic order’ of unplanned neighborhoods.

      Almost every one of these things are practically prerequisites for political power in the town in which I live.

      1. Yes, but his emphasis is currently unfashionable. Just as the planning fads of today will be obviously wrong if not evil to the planners fifty years from now.

        1. will be obviously wrong if not evil to the planners fifty years from now.

          One can only hope. There are only so many bike lanes a man can take.

          1. Yes, but they will substitute something even more scatterbrained.

            1. more likely exactly the same thing with different buzzwords (see: history)

    3. “Smell the Failure”?

      1. “Smells Like Mean Spirited”

    4. when can I expect the Joe from Lowell rock opera?

      They already did one.

  11. Although Jacob’s Greenwich Village is most oft-referred to, Moses’ creation of the odious Cross Bronx Expressway, which eviscerated the once-idyllic neighborhood of East Tremont (and thus created what is now known as the South Bronx), is never mentioned.

    Idyllic it wasn’t. My mother tells me that, before it was called the South Bronx, it was called the East Bronx, and it already had an unsavory reputation before the Cross Bronx was ever built. I remember having to go with her to Bobkoff’s, on the corner of Tremont and Webster, to get my Cub Scout uniform, and it being obvious to me even then that this was not a nice area. My father sometimes took me to the zoo on the 40 (Tremont Ave. bus) rather than the 12 (Fordham Road bus), and I really would have preferred that he not do so. We once saw a movie (something with Ricky Nelson) at the old Fairmount movie theater in the heart of Tremont, and again, the area made me uncomfortable. I guess the Cross Bronx was mostly built by then, although the western end was not finished, but the decay I saw could not have been something just of the last few years.

    1. Moses did target areas that were generally understood to be “down on their heels” (because there was little resistance and of course “for their own good”) but after he got done with them they invariably got many times worse.

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