Since moving to Manhattan to launch his performing career 17 years ago, composer, playwright and actor Taylor Mac has graced stages from Sydney to Spoleto to San Francisco. But the Obie Award-winning artist has never been invited to perform uptown — until now. On May 24, at The JCC in Manhattan, Mac will premiere “Sleep Fast! We Need the Pillow!” an exploration of Jewish popular music and “tenement songs” from 1900 to 1910. It’s one slice of Mac’s insanely ambitious “A 24-hour History of Popular Music,” in which he plans to sing 300 songs from different eras for 24 consecutive hours sometime next year. The Arty Semite caught up with the bearded Mac — who’s been known to appear bewigged, painted blue, dressed as a giant flower, or all of the above — in the coffee bar of Manhattan’s Classic Stage Company, where he was performing as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Downtown doyen carried a copy of “Songs of Generations: New Pearls of Yiddish Song” under his arm.
Michael Kaminer: Can you explain the title of your JCC performance, “Sleep Fast! We Need the Pillow”?
Taylor Mac: It’s about the Lower East Side tenements. What interested me was that this was the first time I was being asked in 17 years to perform uptown. I perform all over the world. But in New York City, I feel very stuck in my ghetto, very segregated. My ghetto just happens to be the East Village and Lower East Side, where Jews all used to live in tenements. It’s ironic and beautiful that the first time I’m being asked to go outside my neighborhood is by a community that used to live in my neighborhood.
What distinguishes the work of Jewish songwriters in the period you’re covering?