At first glance, when Amazon Studios’ series Mozart in the Jungle launched in December 2014, it suggested little more than a mashup of the bed-hopping and gossip from Sex and the City with the ambience of Carnegie Hall.
The premise that the classical music world is driven by the same desires and is prey to the same hedonistic excesses that make headlines when applied to Hollywood artists or pop stars should hardly be a surprise.
Back in the 1980s Amadeus became a phenomenon because it portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a wild-and-crazy guy who just happened to write immortal music. Peter Shaffer (whose play was adapted for the hit film) revealed a Mozart addicted to life and physical pleasures — which would be iconoclastic only to those who think of classical composers and musicians as “people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble,” as Shaffer’s character puts it.
But the sexcapades are just one aspect of Mozart in the Jungle. Thanks to some cleverly satirical flair and, above all, the performances of Gael García Bernal and Bernadette Peters, the series has been winning accolades and fans.
Just in time for Season 2, Mozart nabbed two Golden Globe nominations (best comedy and Bernal for best actor in a comedy) and it currently averages an “88% fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The inspiration behind the show was the tell-all memoir published in 2005 by musician/journalist Blair Tindall (her full, titillating title was Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music). In the book — intended as a kind of cautionary tale about systemic failings and overreach in the classical music biz — Tindall recounts a quarter-century of her career as a freelance oboist in New York City during the greed-fueled 1980s.
She made ends meet with a hodgepodge of high-end orchestral assignments and gigs as a pit player for Broadway hits like Miss Saigon and Les Mis. “I’d tried working my way into the coke scene since drug use had become a way of networking with the top freelancers,” Tindall wrote, in reference to an additional strategy (beside hooking up) in her repertoire of ways to get hired amid the incessant competition.
The digital series updates Tindall’s Bonfire of the Vanities-flavored NYC of the ‘80s to the present. The approach gives license for satirical jabs at the personalities and predicaments of high-profile figures in today’s classical music scene. Through the eyes of oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke) — who starts off as a starry-eyed ingénue launching her professional career — we encounter the motley character types who make up the fictional New York Symphony.
Its former longterm conductor (played by a fabulously arrogant Malcolm McDowell) has been sacked in favor of the sexy hotshot star, Rodrigo de Souza — a role Bernal infuses with a winning mix of quirky entitlement and flamboyantly demented charm. Rodrigo’s charisma and Latino background have suggested parallels with the podium star Gustavo Dudamel, current head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In fact, the show’s writers indulge in some enjoyable interplay between real-life and their fictional characters.
Season Two’s first 10 episodes, for example, show Rodrigo on a brief guest gig at the Hollywood Bowl to conduct the LA Phil, where Dudamel gamely makes a cameo appearance as an orchestral employee eager to give advice. (Bernal actually got some conducting pointers from the maestro and we see him wave his arms gracefully to the scampering strains that start Mozart’s “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro.”
As the orchestra’s politically savvy chairwoman Gloria (supposedly modeled on the LA Phil’s powerful and influential president, Deborah Borda), Peters is another standout of the Mozart cast — and in Season Two we at last get to see the famed Stephen Sondheim actually sing (in a private scene with Peters where she’s told she’s good enough to be “performing in front of an audience”).
Each of the show’s seasons feature brief appearances by some of today’s finest soloists, including Joshua Bell and Emanuel Ax, but it’s the emotional roller-coaster and politics behind the scenes that generate the dramedy here. The threat of a devastating strike — all too familiar in the real world of American orchestras — looms over Season 2, and Gloria’s hobnobbing with potential donors underscores the precarious financial straits that have to be navigated to keep the music playing.
But the compulsive libidos that figure in the story are timeless. It didn’t take rock stars to discover the link between ego, sex, and music. Variations on the theme can be found in any thriving artistic milieu, whether it’s Handel’s London or the Vienna of Arnold Schoenberg. And when creatively channeled, that libido can produce spectacular results. “Conducting,” as Leonard Bernstein famously put it, “is like making love to a hundred people at the same time.”