I loved the book Mozart in the Jungle. A tell-all about the sordid offstage universe of classical music, it made headlines in 2005 for exactly one reason: In it, author Blair Tindall — a classical oboist — claims that she had sex with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart while he was married. The book also takes the decidedly unsexy, but no less controversial stance that there should actually be less classical music education, not more, in keeping with shrinking audiences and arts budgets. If you think I was going to skip that, you hardly know me, friend. Likewise, I wasn’t about to skip the pilot of the TV version, which was produced by Amazon.com and can be viewed there for free.
The small-screen Mozart in the Jungle is significantly updated and fictionalized, so its references feel more contemporary. (Keith Lockhart, at 54, isn’t quite as compelling as he once was.) But the emphasis on sex, drugs, and profanity remains. I should also note that Alex Timbers is one of the show’s writers, which should more or less guarantee it a certain degree of insouciant, hip, shaggy-haired genius, right?
Well… sort of.
In the pilot, we first meet Hailey, a talented young oboist trying to make it in New York’s cutthroat classical world by giving lessons to bratty kids and moonlighting in the pit of a Broadway show. She is soon befriended by seasoned cellist Cynthia, who plays in the fictional New York Symphony, and is sleeping with the outgoing maestro and lots of other popele that she recounts, checklist style, assessing their sexual style based on the instruments they play. The aging maestro, Thomas, is feeling bitter about his handsome young replacement, Rodrigo, the probably-Italian, possibly-Latin-American young upstart whose character is rather transparently based on real-life L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. How transparently? If you check IMDB right now, the character’s name is listed as Gustavo — making me wonder if the Mozart creators were feeling so audacious about their character inspiration that they actually considered giving him the same name. Even if it’s a typo, it’s an easy one to understand.
If this sounds like a jumble of blatant stereotypes — of newbies, aging pros, and greasy foreigners — that’s because it is. And this is why Mozart in the Jungle, even from its first episode, strikes terror into my poor arts-obsessed heart. Because right out of the gate, it’s reminding me of… I shudder to type the word… Smash. Oh god, Smash! The recently-departed soap opera of idiotic Broadway doom. In its worst moments, Mozart in the Jungle feels like its dopey classical music cousin.
The show seems to have Smash‘s broad-strokes character development problem where all the men are buffoons and all the women fall neatly into their virgin/whore archetypes without so much as a blink. (If you need guidance on the latter, check the lipstick color.) It also immediately staggers into a Smash-like believability problem that has its characters gossiping onstage while they take their bows, loudly denouncing each other in front of rooms of important people, and turning down sex with exceptionally good looking prospects. It just doesn’t ring true. I sense that the writers are trying to put us into an exaggerated universe here, but the tone isn’t protracted enough to feel genuinely otherworldly (think Kevin Spacy talking directly to the audience in House of Cards). Plus, Tindall’s memoir bears no hints of exaggeration — which is the very thing that made it fascinating in the first place. All of the drinking, drugging, and fucking seemed pretty much real.
The Rodrigo character in particular poses a major problem, and for one reason: The real Gustavo Dudamel’s life is completely fascinating. He rose up from abject poverty and hails from one of the most violent and corrupt nations on earth. His body guards and associates have been gunned down and kidnapped in the streets of Caracas. He is clearly a prodigy, even while he and his mentors consistently play this down, owing his success to his training in Venezuela’s famous, publicly-funded youth symphonies. His homeland’s national policy and rhetoric is aggressively anti-American, even while he enjoys celebrity status here. He is forever smiling, beloved by his colleagues in all corners of the globe, and, at the same time, silent or diversionary about anything that bears even the remotest whiff of politics.
Why can’t somebody make me a TV show about all that? Because I want to watch it. What I actually don’t really want to watch is a cartoon version of a complicated man like Dudamel, with his hair and accent played for laughs. Just like Jeremy Jordan’s spotty real-life childhood, even given what little we know of it, is a thousand times more intriguing than Jimmy Collins’s pallid little drug-and-shoplifting problem, so the story of the real Gustavo Dudamel is infinitely more powerful than whatever this show is going to conjure up. The choice to spoof him here is a lazy misstep — a cynical grab at a “known” classical music name to replace the real-life Lockhart affair. The trouble with that? Anyone who recognizes Gustavo Dudamel also knows that Rodrigo is lame by comparison, even when he’s being played by someone as handsome as Gael Garcia Bernal.
Still, there are moments when Mozart in the Jungle‘s goofball tone works like a charm — and indicates that the show could have some real promise. The one moment that had me laughing my face off wasn’t Rodrigo’s antics, but at the portrayal of the Broadway musical where Hailey works. It’s called Oedipus Rocks: The Styx Musical, and it stars Constantine Maroulis (REALLY) and has its toga-clad leading man gyrating with showgirls as he sings “Come Sail Away.” That’s so brilliant that it only could have been Alex Timbers’s idea. It’s also so utterly on-the-nose in its absurdity that it could be real. It will probably be on Broadway next season, so brace yourself for that.
If only the whole show had the courage to leap at such dastardly inside jokes as that one. If it does in subsequent episodes, it might be kind of awesome. If it doesn’t, we indeed have the classical version of Smash — a show that seems to suck life out of live performance and its personalities, literally reducing them to flatness and smallness. For those of us who consistently crave a good story about our stories, here’s hoping that Mozart in the Jungle can do better.