Long before Seattle’s Black Lives Matter protesters took over several city streets and declared their own “autonomous zone,” disgruntled citizens of 19th-century Paris created a radical government known as the Commune de. Paris, a short-lived siege of the French capital which became the first socialist revolution in Europe. From March 18 to May 28, 1871, “the scoundrel”, or the working class (although more exactly translated as “the scum”), governed Paris and its inhabitants, promoting freedom of expression, secular education, property. business cooperative, direct democracy and women’s equality as principles.
This socialist experiment, though unsuccessful, planted the seeds of cultural upheaval from the Russian Revolution to the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square in China, inspiring generations of revolutionaries to stand up for equality in the face of an oppressive regime. Perhaps this is why the Civilians, a theater company dedicated to exploring the intersections of theater and society, saw this rich moment in history as ripe for exploration on stage. While they had previously focused on contemporary issues for their adventures in journalistic theater, Steve Cosson, artistic director of Civilians, and Michael Friedman, a founding associate artist, saw the opportunity to reimagine history and to recreate the explosive events of 1871 on stage using archival documents and original songs from the time.
Municipality of Paris, while recalling events from nearly 150 years ago, proved to be more prescient than even its creators imagined: as Cosson noted on the show’s world premiere schedule as part of of the BAM Next Wave Festival 2012, âMichael and I often remarked how extraordinary it is that, for example, an unnamed citizen stood up at a meeting in 1871 and shared a piece of her mind, and because this thought has been recorded, we can bring it back to life through the artifice of the theater. This woman was not a “person” in the story, but because she was part of public discourse just for a moment, her idea continues to shape the fabric of our present. History is not simply a recording of the past; it is the continued presence and influence of past events and ideas. With Municipality of Paris, Cosson and Friedman continued their mission, as Ben Brantley explained in his review of the production, to give “voice to the voiceless and form to the undocumented.”
Today, for the first time, the public has the opportunity to revisit Municipality of Paris with the release of his new distribution album. The recording is part of the second installment of the Michael Friedman Collection, a legacy project from Ghostlight Records and the Civilians that began after Friedman’s untimely death in 2017. The collection will feature nine unreleased musicals from the prolific composer and lyricist. “Now her life’s work will live on,” said Kurt Deutsch, founder of Ghostlight Records and frequent contributor to Friedman, in a statement, “and inspire generations of musical theater enthusiasts to come.”
Unlike the other albums in the collection, songs by Municipality of Paris were studied, selected and ultimately translated by Friedman, and not by the composer himself. But what listeners lose in originality they gain in Friedman’s revealing musical archeology. Friedman, who studied American history and classical music at Harvard before becoming a full-time director, chose archival music that not only represented the Commune, but often emerged from it. The most prominent example is âLa Canailleâ – lyrics by Alexis Bouvier and music by Joseph Darcier – a song that inspired Friedman’s selections throughout the development of the show. Cosson remembers Friedman being awakened by an article he read on La Bordas, a cabaret singer and later character in Municipality of Paris, who sang “La Canaille” to boost the morale of the town.
Friedman chose archival music that not only represented the Commune, but often emerged from it.
“La Canaille” is only one of the historical songs of the spectacle which were sung within the Commune to denounce the tyranny and offer fleeting moments of joy in the midst of the harsh realities intrinsic to the maintenance of an insurgent socialist government. The primary war cries were written by Jean-Baptiste ClÃ©ment and EugÃ¨ne Pottier, themselves elected councilors of the Commune. ClÃ©ment’s âLe Temps des Cerisesâ became the symbol of the revolution, while âL’Internationaleâ, written by Pottier just a few weeks after the devastating disappearance of the Commune, became the hymn of the international workers’ movement. Remarkably, although the overthrow of the Commune at the hands of the French army left tens of thousands of deaths, ClÃ©ment survived and continued to write about the public executions of the Communards in “La Semaine sanglante”. and “Le Capitaine” (The Captain).
Of course, not all of the musical moments in the series are that heavy. âLes Canards Tyroliensâ – words by Cognard FrÃ¨res and music by Theresa – is part of the rich tradition of cafÃ©-concerts, open-air performances that took place during the Second Empire before the Commune. âAh, how I love the military! Â»(Oh, I love men in uniform) – words by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic HalÃ©vy, music by Jacques Offenbach – is taken from a completely different genre (the outrageous universe of opera bouffe). All along Municipality of Paris an opera singer appears on occasion, musically representing the ruling class and state power.
The Revolution soundtrack was varied, and thanks to Michael Friedman, people will hear the thoughts and melodies of the Revolutionaries in the Commune for years to come.
To listen to the world premiere recording of âLa Commune de Parisâ, click here.
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