We know the characters well: The bad man with a plan, and the cycling saint who takes him down with the power of the people and the pen. Of course, there is more to the very familiar story of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. While Moses certainly engineered displacement and destruction on epic scales, he also built public parks, pools, and beaches that are treasured to this day. And if Jacobs’s values were certainly not aligned with mid-century urban renewal efforts, we now find them more simpatico with late 20th century gentrification in the West Village and well beyond.
A slew of recent media adaptations of their tale have further solidified Moses and Jacobs as David and Goliath, even as their legacies are reevaluated. At the Shed in Hudson Yards this fall, Ralph Fiennes chews the scenery as Robert Moses in David Ives’s Straight Line Crazy, yelling at his employees for making slight adjustments to highway routes, laying on the smarm for Governor Al Smith, and forcefully dismissing the needs of working-class communities and communities of color. Before ascending the escalator to see the show, theatergoers can peruse a pile of related titles in the lobby bookstore — of course, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is prominently featured. Other recent retellings include a 2017 off-Broadway musical, Bulldozer, starring a former American Idol contestant; Edward Norton’s 2019 film Motherless Brooklyn, featuring Alec Baldwin as a thinly veiled Moses; and Arthur Nersesian’s speculative novel, The Five Books of (Robert) Moses, which at 1504 pages rivals the length of Caro’s.
While some adaptations trap their figures in amber — drama as historical reenactment — others expose these characters in a new light. In October, A Marvelous Order — an opera based on Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs with music by Judd Greenstein, libretto by former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and direction and animation by Joshua Frankel — had its world premiere at the Eisenhower Auditorium at Penn State University. The production eschews mid-century pastiche to offer a kaleidoscopic remaking of the story, highlighting the enduring urban spatial conflicts that still impact audiences today. Before the fully-realized piece was staged in State College, sections had been performed in New York City in spaces from Brooklyn Public Library to the Fulton Center transit hub. Shortly after the first performance, we spoke to Judd Greenstein and Joshua Frankel about creating human and nuanced versions of two titanic figures, art’s potential to reframe and reimagine public space, and how the opera, and how they think about it, has changed during its nearly decade-long development process.
This story about community activists fighting a road doesn’t seem immediately operatic. What about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses made you interested in telling their story in this form?
It’s worth saying that both Judd and I were kids in Greenwich Village. Judd grew up a few blocks from Washington Square Park, and I went to elementary school a few blocks away. We didn’t meet till adulthood, but we were in Washington Square Park in those playgrounds as kids. We felt from the beginning that we could bring something personal to this story. I can’t remember not having heard of Jacobs and Moses: they are the mythological characters of this place where we’re from.
Questions of urban planning can feel heavy and abstract. But in the lived world, whether it’s in New York City or in a small town, these are questions of enormous human passion. Even a question of “they might cut down the tree that’s in front of my window” can elicit enormous passion at a community board meeting, let alone “they’re going to run a highway through my neighborhood, or tear down the home that I live in.” As New York City has changed with development and gentrification, we’ve seen activist movements that have been a groundswell of the type of human passion that we do associate with art and with opera. It felt like a story that needed to be told in this way.
I would push back on the idea that something is inherently operatic or not. One problematic point is that most stories, or at least too many stories, that are used for operas tend to be stories of women who are the subject of violence and are not treated as full human beings. Our conception of what is or is not operatic needs to be unpacked from a pretty deep starting point.
When we talk about something that’s operatic, an element that feels important is that figures exist on multiple levels: as larger-than-life figures but also as real human beings. For us, both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses fit those criteria perfectly. Therefore, you have the opportunity in the opera to tell the story on both of those levels; at the level of grand, evocative scale — whether that’s Jacobs describing her neighborhood or Moses describing his plans to destroy it — but then also as people with human emotions and motivations.
The characters in the opera did feel like fully-fleshed out people. How did you approach building these figures?
One thing that I remember is talking with Tracy [K. Smith] really early on in our collaboration about freeing ourselves from the idea that the characters on stage were Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs: they’re our versions of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Making that explicit to ourselves felt liberating in the process of building an opera, because we are not historians, let alone psychologists, let alone biographers. We have no personal relationships with these people. To actually delve into their characters is a fictional journey. And yet, it’s also a journey of finding what feels familiar in ourselves in them.
I think Tracy approaches Jane Jacobs as a fellow writer and looks at the contradictions and challenges of trying to be an activist and somebody who’s politically involved in the struggles of her time — and our time — while also trying to finish her book, and seeing that as a form of activism but not letting that be sufficient.
I found a connection that I didn’t expect with this idea of toxic masculinity that Moses embodies in Tracy’s writing of him, which had vastly negative consequences for thousands of people in New York’s history: Moses’s ego didn’t allow him to see the possibility of change or the need for different perspectives. But there’s something about the desire to make change and make the world a better place that Tracy also writes into his character, that makes him, if not a sympathetic figure, at least one that we can understand as people who want to be agents for positive change in the world.
The show has a dazzling look: coordinated animations on multiple screens, featuring a mix of original work and archival imagery. How did you create the visual aesthetic of this show?
From the beginning, this felt like a story that animation would help tell. It’s a story about epic structures and millions of people and different perspectives. That top-down view of Moses and that on-the-street view of Jacobs, animation would let us show all those ideas, often side-by-side. With questions of architecture and urban planning, you’re talking about something that is deeply three-dimensional, and often limited by talking about it using two-dimensional forms. So you need lots of different types of two-dimensional forms in order to talk about this thing that has three dimensions. Having multiple channels of animation, looking at the same problem from multiple angles at the same time, seemed like the way to do it.
Judd and I had been working together on smaller projects over the years and found that we shared a lot of sensibilities, interests, reference points. And it was in the midst of a film-music project called Plan of the City that we started talking about A Marvelous Order. Plan of the City began with the thought of collage being the language of architectural proposals; an architect takes a photograph of what’s there and then superimposes what they would change, what they would add to it. The aesthetic of A Marvelous Order uses that as a starting point as well and pushes in all sorts of other directions. In that collage, there are things that I’ve found, photographs and footage that I’ve shot, and things that I’ve created.
Most of the things I created for the work are rooted in reality. A lot of my animation of people is rotoscope, it’s drawings made from footage that I’ve shot or found. There are things like protest signs, and the way they move is based on how signs are moving in footage from protests. And then, of course, the set of building blocks, that the cast is constantly rearranging over the course of performance, creating and destroying their environments. Some of those blocks — not all of them, but some of them — have screens on them, so that the animation exists in three dimensions, not just in two.
One of our first residencies was at the Sundance New Frontier Story Lab. The folks at Sundance introduced us to an organization called Three Legged Dog, which focused on the intersection of performance and technology. The folks at Three Legged Dog, they found like-minded fellows, Seth Kirby and Fubbi Karlsson, who are the technology designers. The brief was multiple channels of animation, embedded in a set of objects the cast would move around on stage, and they figured out how to do it. The blocks are not products you can buy from Panasonic or something like that. These two brilliant designers working in Berlin and Brooklyn built them from the raw component parts.
One thing that I’m curious about is how you thought about color. Red feels like a really important color in this opera, and you exhibited a companion set of cyanotypes at the Palmer Museum at Penn State, which are such a particular blue.
Color is really important to me. Each of my projects tends to have an animation aspect to it and also physical works that I’m creating alongside them. As I’ve been creating imagery for the opera, I’ve been creating works on paper as well.
Cyanotypes are one of the oldest photographic processes, and when they were invented, they were quickly adapted to reproduce architectural plans. That’s why we call them blueprints. I thought that was an interesting medium to use for this project. They’re also exposed in sunlight and developed in water, and one of the themes in the work and imagery of the work is the way that Moses brings the natural world into the city. You know, whether it’s rectangular swimming pools, or baseball diamonds, or beaches that are sort of perfectly curved arcs, like Orchard Beach, the enormous Jones Beach. The way that New York City folks interact with nature is very much prescribed by Robert Moses. And, of course, when Jane Jacobs and her friends are fighting to defend Washington Square Park, they’re defending a way that New Yorkers interact with nature that predates Moses. The works on paper are sometimes images that I’m working out for the animation, sometimes they relate to set design. Sometimes they’re just the ideas. Sometimes it’s me processing reference imagery. Each one takes a different type of form.
As for red, there are incredible images that Moses produced to propose his projects. One of the most powerful images of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the ten-lane superhighway that would have cut across Broome Street in Soho, is a red line drawn across a photograph of an area of Lower Manhattan, and if you look closely, you can see that someone took a razor blade and cut out little buildings so that the red line can weave behind those buildings, in a way that we think nothing of with Photoshop, but it was done with razor blades and paste back then.
There are few different musical modes throughout the opera. There’s often this really, sort of exciting, shimmery, interlocking quality. Other times it feels sweeter and more fragile. Judd, how did you develop a sonic language for this piece?
The biggest level is the distinction between the movement building and the really discrete personalities and characters of the Village residents and the people on the street, versus the lockstep world of Robert Moses.
I really feel like the main thing of the whole opera, for me, personally, at the highest level, in terms of the musical decisions we made, is letting singers find their own voices and use whatever they can to tell the story of the characters that they’re embodying. This is not an opera that’s meant for “Soprano 1” and “Tenor 3.” I was, in some way, writing for what I knew of the voices in question.
The best example of that is Jane Jacobs herself. A lot of the writing for Megan Schubert in Act I exists in her beautiful, classically trained, soprano range. But she also has this unbelievable belt voice that you only hear, really for the first time, in its full power, at the very, very end of Act I when she answers Bob Jacobs’s question: “Jane, what are we going to do?” And that winds up being the gateway to what is to come in Act II, where that becomes much more where she lives vocally.
This production has been in development for nearly a decade, and you’ve been workshopping it in some pretty interesting locations, like outside of the Brooklyn Public Library, or at major transit hubs.
We’ve been building the project outside of a traditional opera house, which has afforded all kinds of creative opportunities and freedom for us, but also has enormous challenges. Our approach has been very iterative: making a part of the work, sharing that with audiences, seeing what’s working, making adjustments, and gradually working towards completing the work. For me as a visual artist, that makes a lot of sense as a way to work to make something and gradually make bigger and more clarified versions of the thing. It feels very natural. It’s not usually how opera works, but there’s a lot of power in that way of working.
At the Fulton Transit Center, we were invited to create a site-specific adaptation as part of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival. We had a live chamber ensemble in the transit hub, maybe five or so singers moving through the space. Fulton Center has multiple levels to it; it’s arranged sort of like a pantheon. And the place is mixed-use. There are stores, a WeWork, restaurants; it has its own ballet of the street. From one level, you can see to another level, and so placing the work there, we had some people who came to see it because they knew they were going to come see it, and others who stumbled upon it on their commute home. We performed Robert Moses scenes there because of scheduling, but Jane Jacobs was present in the way that people were moving about the space. We got to know some of the people who spend their days and lives in that space.
In the opera, the animation is on four channels, an upstage cyc and on multiple screens embedded in the blocks that the cast is constantly moving around, creating and destroying their environments. For the Fulton Center presentation, the animation was transposed onto the video screens in the space that are usually used for advertising. These 50-plus screens had animation from the opera tightly synchronized to the live chamber ensemble, which is not something these screens were designed to do. So the folks at Westfield were game to open up the backs of these things and get into the nitty gritty of hacking to some degree.
This is a work about public space, so it felt really good to perform it in public space. The act of doing that points out to the public that this is a space that could be something else. And that is a creative thought, a creative act, a type of questioning, that is a central outcome that we want people to have when encountering our work.
The Brooklyn Library performance felt like a coming together of people who needed art in a space that was available during a time when we were all being kept apart from each other — still in the height of Covid and during, at that point, one of the second waves. Activating space and activating consciousness around space is central to the work.
I remember going to Europe, for maybe the first time, when I was in my 20s, and having a performance at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ in Amsterdam. And the relationship that people had to that space, there’s a little cafe and people just kind of hanging out. I remember being shocked because there was no scheduled performance at the time. And I was trying to picture doing that at Lincoln Center, or Carnegie Hall, and the idea was just so foreign to me as an American in the space. Because that’s not how we treat public spaces, we treat public spaces as places to move through to go to for a specific destination. To be on the veranda of the Brooklyn Public Library, next to this incredible park, hearing the noises of traffic intermingled with the music and speaking to the imagery that we were seeing on the screen, it was profoundly powerful in that sense, too, because it felt like this is actually one of the uses that this space can have. We just didn’t see it before because we were on our way to the doors themselves to get into the library, to check out our book and leave.
This is in many ways a New York story, but you premiered the work over 200 miles away at Penn State, and will tour the work to other cities. How do you see this work speaking to audiences beyond the five boroughs?
At Penn State, I spoke to two classes in a row where I was getting excellent questions from the students but they weren’t knitting together into a cohesive conversation. I thought I might just turn the questions around on the students and ask them how this story is playing out in State College. They started talking about the problems of affordable housing: there have been housing towers going up in State College, and these new towers are too expensive for most of the community to afford. A lot of folks, whether it’s students or staff members, are getting pushed farther from campus, and their commutes are getting longer.
The problems that Jacobs writes about take place everywhere. There are buildings everywhere, there are people arguing over what should be built, what should be destroyed, what should be preserved, and that’s true in big cities and small towns.
What is our story really about? I mean, is it about New York City? Yes, but, like Josh is saying, it’s really about about power dynamics and awareness of place, and those are simply human needs and conditions no matter where you are.
We’ve talked about the developmental history of this piece. I’m curious how your thinking about this story has changed in your time with it. In the past ten years, so much has happened. We’re seeing protests for racial justice, a persistent pandemic, and intense real estate speculation nearly everywhere. We’ve also really changed how we think about both Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, understanding Moses’s positive contributions to our urban fabric with more nuance and looking at Jacobs with a more critical eye.
Activism has been a part of Judd’s and my life before beginning this project, but that element got a spotlight on it, in our lives, in the midst of working on this project and alongside all these other things that we’ve been talking about — the work in the context of opera as a form and using art to render and explore the human passion that is wrapped up in urban planning. It’s also a project about activism and the problems of activism. Activism is hard.
But as Judd began to construct music, there’s a contrast between Moses’s very hierarchical organization and Jacobs’s band of misfits that are trying to corral themselves into a movement. There’s some sort of strange, human desire to have Jane Jacobs be the hero at the head of that movement, and that almost starts to move it towards a more hierarchical framing. In our rendering of the story, we’re trying to push against that and give the ensemble a life of its own, and have the movement be this kind of handshake between this ensemble of people, all of them different, creating something that’s greater than the sum of their parts alongside this very special individual. Working together without falling into the precise, hierarchical mode of someone like Moses.
That juxtaposition has only grown more striking and strident in the last ten years with the emergence of Trump, perhaps the greatest demagogue figure of the past 50 years. You have to find ways to work together to oppose. The greatest activist movement of the last 40 to 50 years is the right-wing coalition that is now bearing fruit at all levels of our government. And if you see that as activism, then you really understand what other activist movements are up against.
Ten years ago, I don’t think that was as clear because things weren’t as polarized as they are now. With that clarity, you come to the distinctions of the opera, between the messiness that Josh is describing, of real people who have other lives trying to come together and be activists, versus a machine that is built intentionally for that one purpose.
There’s a section of libretto that Tracy added before this production at Penn State. The first time I heard it, before we even got to Penn State, I was pretty deeply moved, thinking about the problems of activism. It’s after the Lower Manhattan Expressway has been defeated. Jane Jacobs says something like “We’ve won, we’ve won. They seem to understand, but there is something at the root that doesn’t want to go away.” You can work so hard and seem to accomplish so little sometimes. It goes on like “They’re like a forest of aspens, these men, they’re all connected underneath.” And then this character, the Displaced Woman, says to Jane Jacobs, “And aren’t we?”
I think what Josh was alluding to before is really true, which is that the questions about urban planning and land use and building things, especially housing, have come to the fore in such a dramatic way in the last couple of years. The Moses man, in the first hearing, yells back at Jane Jacobs and the villagers: “If you can’t see past your own city block, you have no business talking about posterity.” He is a ludicrous character in a lot of ways, but at that moment, if you just take out that line, it’s like, “Well, yeah, I agree with that.” And he means it in a different way, but it actually is speaking to the people who will become, in some ways, the progenitors of the problems that we feel today. I think it adds a good complexity to the work and to these characters. And it also is something that is going to change its meaning over time.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.