LP0188. IN CIRCLES, Original Off-Off 1967 Broadway Cast (Gertrude Stein; Music by Al Carmines). Avant Garde stereo AV 108
"Gertrude Stein once said she really didn't have any imagination; she just wrote about people and things she knew. Nobody would agree with that, but it's true in the sense that she just recorded thoughts as they bubbled up. It's all very strange and complicated. And people who know Al's work regard IN CIRCLES as one of his most successful translations of Stein to the theatre. He fostered art the way Stein fostered art in Paris….the production aims specifically to evoke the atmosphere of Stein's Paris salon, where some of the most brilliant and influential artists and writers — Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway — of the early 20th century could be found. Noting that Carmines envisioned IN CIRCLES as very abstract, without such anchors as narrative structure, Patterson likens the piece to a mad tea party. ‘You get hints, and it never quite settles….The lyrics are basically non sequiturs, with no logical progression’."
- Anna Bengel, BACKSTAGE
“The Rev. Al Carmines, who marshaled his gifts as a showman, composer, singer and actor to turn the sanctuary of a Greenwich Village church into a riveting avant-garde stage that helped start the Off Off Broadway revolt against mainstream theater in the 1960's was a seminal force in the rise in New York of small, experimental theaters created to challenge what many saw as the commercialization and conformity of Broadway and Off Broadway houses. At the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, his specialty was setting to music his many enthusiasms, which included Abraham Lincoln, Christmas, homosexuality, St. Joan and, most particularly, Gertrude Stein.
The new Off-Off Broadway theater, pioneered by Mr. Carmines's Judson Poets' Theater, as well as Café Cino, La MaMa E.T.C. and Theatre Genesis, was blossoming with new insouciance, eagerness to experiment and, in a phrase of the time, ‘polymorphous perversity’. The net result, The Village Voice said in an article this year, was to render conventional realism out of style, if not obsolete. By 1972, Off Off Broadway was staging about 500 shows, compared with 100 for Broadway and Off Broadway combined.
Clive Barnes, writing in THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1973, called Mr. Carmines ‘the composer of more musicals than almost any man now alive’ and went on to suggest that his ‘ease and daring’ were matched only by Stephen Sondheim's. Mr. Carmines dared to adapt Aristophanes to a minstrel setting, set to music the sayings of chairman Mao and ignited a firestorm among gay men in 1973 with a musical entitled THE FAGGOT. In one Judson production, nudity was made more interesting by commingling it with raw fish and sausages.
Mr. Carmines' brazen creativity was at its brightest in one of his five Gertrude Stein musicals, IN CIRCLES, for which he wrote and performed a different opening song each night.
Walter Kerr of THE TIMES wrote in 1969: ‘There is literally nothing Mr. Carmines will not use - gallops, waltzes, polkas, circus blares and musical bumps and grinds - to get his work done’. By Mr. Carmines' own count, he wrote about 80 musicals, operas and oratorios, of which 10 graduated to Off Broadway houses. Some of his works are still performed by regional theaters. He won five Obie awards, one of them for lifetime achievement. Productions by others for Judson won even more.
He also preached sermons, visited the sick and performed other pastoral duties. At a time of hippies and happenings, he firmly believed that his theatrical passion was a form of worship, even if he seldom mentioned God. ‘I've discovered for myself that God doesn't disappear when you don't talk about him’, he said in an interview with THE TIMES in 1966. In 1973, he expanded on the thought in another interview with THE TIMES: ‘My domain - if I have one - is that crack between ideologies where contradictory, frustrating, un-ideological, stinking and thrilling humanity raises its head’.
Mr. Carmines quickly became the face of Judson. Mr. Barnes wrote in THE TIMES in 1968, ‘The real performance comes from Mr. Carmines, crouched at his piano like a benevolent tiger, seeming cherubic enough yet with a face that sometimes looks like the darker side of the moon’. Mr. Carmines never doubted that as much spiritual meaning could be found in the theater as in church.
‘If you want to know how to live, go to church’, he said in a letter to THE TIMES in 1989. ‘If you want to know how your life is in its deepest roots, go to the theater’."
- Douglas Martin, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13 Aug., 2005