Theater archives

Al Carmines (1936–2005)


The first time I saw Al Carmines, he was composing. Like most people crowded into the Cherry Lane Theater to see In Circles that evening, I didn’t realize what he was doing. I had come to see a new musical, based on Gertrude Stein, that had been enthusiastically received in a church theater and had now transferred Off-Broadway. What I thought I saw was a bulky, black-haired man, seated at a piano to one side of the tiny stage, noodling disconnected phrases over and over. Actors began to drift onstage. The bulky man started teaching them the phrases. Having finished teaching the choral parts, the man stood up at the piano, turned to the audience, and said, “First in a circle,” and the cast sang what was now a delightful, fully realized choral composition. I had entered the enchanted world of Al Carmines. I can still sing snatches of that first tune, though I never heard it again: He composed a new one at every performance.

That was only a hint of the harmonious delights to come. The Reverend Alvin Allison Carmines, who died in St. Vincent’s on August 9, was a person for whom music was not a diversion set apart from life, but a continuum coextensive with it. He was an artist who sounded the music of life and a minister who preached through the spirit of music. He did not believe that there were barriers within life, and in Judson Memorial Church, at the bottom of Washington Square, he worked to create a congregation and a community and a theater that, in the blaze of his musical vision, could at least temporarily share his belief. Living, even the most secular aspect of living, was to him an act of God, and there was no feeling in life that the act of making music could not reach out to celebrate.

Al Carmines was a large man, and his largeness was his essence. He was large in the flesh, large in spirit, large in generosity, large in ego, and very, very large in talent. When he came to Judson, as assistant minister in 1961, he was put in charge of the choir, and of the church’s theatrical activities. Judson soon found that, for Carmines, the two were one: He recruited choir members to appear in his shows, and actors to sing and speak at services. While Judson Poets Theatre, in the burgeoning downtown scene of the 1960s, presented any number of non-musical plays-—works by Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson come to mind—it more often tempted downtown playwrights to expand their horizons into the musical sphere, largely with scores supplied by Carmines: Plays by Rosalyn Drexler (Home Movies) and Maria Irene Fornes (Promenade) were among the bright, mordant, saucy, socially outraged, and sexually outrageous Carmines-scored events to emerge from Judson into the commercial arena. While Broadway moved toward the somber, quasi-operatic “concept” musical, the Judson works offered an alternative path, wickedly delightful and loose-jointed, in the spirit of the pre-1940s American musical but with an up-to-date consciousness.

Protest against the war in Vietnam, as in the Carmines–Tim Reynolds adaptation of Aristophanes’ Peace, played its part in fueling this movement; so did the era’s sexual liberation, captured in the madhouse carnality of Ronald Tavel’s Gorilla Queen (co-composed by Carmines and Robert Cosmos Savage). Equal partners with Carmines in creating the exhilarating cartoon style of these events was director Lawrence Kornfeld, who also worked closely with him on the stunning series of Gertrude Stein productions that were the backbone of the Judson style, a spine running the length of the theater’s history, from the early What Happened through In Circles, Listen to Me, A Manoir, The Making of Americans, and the memorable Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, with Jeff Weiss unforgettable in the title role. Stein’s modernist blend of playfulness, philosophy, and personal testimony was the theater’s vision, reflected in the joyous eclecticism of Carmines’s music. The Stein projects had grown in part out of Judson’s importance as the epicenter of postmodern dance, but their verbal river triggered an additional response in Carmines himself, who began to supply his own texts for the “oratorios” that increasingly made up Judson’s theatrical schedule. Some of these, too, like Joan and The Faggot, found their way Off-Broadway. Their apex, Christmas Rappings, Carmines’s setting of the Nativity story, became a December perennial. Its iconoclastic approach is indicated by its opening number: the Gospels’ genealogy from Abraham to Jesus, puckishly set as a history of Western classical music from Bach to John Cage. As performed by Carmines himself at the piano, it was a yearly source of ineffable joy.

Carmines’s tremendous output as composer, writer, director, and musical director in fact seemed to germinate from his energy as a performer. He might turn up onstage in one of his musicals, in a play by someone else, or at the piano in a late-night cabaret, but it was equally possible to find him at the church, solemnizing a marriage and then sitting down to play and sing the epithalamium he had composed for such occasions. When a combination of his medical problems—his cardiac history was as grim as his music was lighthearted—with administrative disagreements about the church’s arts program forced him out of Judson in 1981, he founded a new congregation in midtown, Rauschenbusch Memorial Church, and continued preaching, acting, and composing, albeit on a reduced scale. Along with all the Carmines music worth rehearing, there is probably much not yet heard.

But to list Carmines’s achievements would be pointless without also listing the countless people whose lives his whirlpool of artistic energy affected. Literally dozens of the artists involved linger in my memory as friends, though known to me only through the performance of his works. If he had a giant ego, it was a welcoming one: a vast, creative umbrella under which a whole community could flourish.