- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

The pairing of "The King" and the king of cutting-edge music might sound like a recipe for aural anarchy.
But Anthony Davis is confident that "Tupelo," his Broadway-bound musical about the duality of Elvis Presley prototypical rock 'n' roll icon and cultural thief, down-home Southern boy and pampered man of the world will leave audiences all shook up, in the best possible way.
"I think it's true that Elvis made enduring music and that he was a thief," says Mr. Davis, a professor at the University of California at San Diego and one of America's most celebrated avant-garde composers, performers and provocateurs.
"One of the things that made Elvis a signpost of this century was finding a marketing tool for the blues and the making of mainstream white culture, which basically doesn't exist," he continues.
"What happened after Elvis [achieved fame in the mid-1950s] is that American culture has been subverted by African-American culture, and no matter how much people like Pat Buchanan protest, you can't bring back the good old days.
"Basically, mainstream American music is now rooted in African-American culture," says Mr. Davis, 48, who wrote the music for Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, "Angels in America."
"And that's what makes Elvis so significant. The record industry was looking for a white guy who could sing the blues [like a black man], and they found him. But if that happens, it means the blues has become a universal language that speaks to the whole culture. It was refreshing for me to hear [Presley's] early recordings for the Sun label, and to see where he came from. I was impressed by his talent; he had amazing talent."
Mr. Davis readily agrees with those who regard Presley as an immensely gifted cultural vagabond who made black music and, by extension, sexuality acceptable to a mass white audience.
But he also regards cultural appropriation as a long-standing reality, one that has enabled artists and entire groups of people to evolve by mirroring and borrowing from one another.
"Appropriation is the way music transforms itself," says Mr. Davis, whose 23-year-old band, Episteme, fuses avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical with Indonesian gamelan music.
"Not only is appropriation the way African-American music was transformed, but it also changed the people who made it. It's naive to think you can take the music and ideas without changing the people you take it from. So I look at it as a revolutionary idea that transformed American culture into something much more interesting, even if the roots go back to slavery."
Slavery was the subject of "Amistad," Mr. Davis' fourth and most ambitious opera, which was commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was based on an historic slave rebellion of 1839. It received rave reviews and drew sizable audiences in Chicago but was too daring and unconventional to be picked up for a national tour.
Enter "Tupelo."
The musical is the brainchild of Kevin Eggers, the former head of the Tomato Records label, and veteran lyricist Arnold Weinstein.
It could introduce Mr. Davis to a broad, new audience, because of its iconic subject and that the show's producers have received permission to use "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock" and other classic Presley songs written by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Intriguingly, Mr. Leiber and Mr. Stoller two white Jewish men established themselves by penning songs for such pioneering black American blues and rhythm-and-blues artists as Ruth Brown and the Coasters.
They wrote "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton in 1951, five years before Presley recorded his version of the song.
"Certainly, people will come to 'Tupelo' because it's about Elvis. But my obligation is to take him on a voyage," Mr. Davis says.
"And this is not a musical revue; it's a tragic story. I want to nail it as best I can, and a lot of the music can't be the songs [Presley recorded]. The music I write has to reflect his life, and deal with characters and creating a musical drama.
"So my first concern is to make it good and as emotional and dramatic as I can; that's the main thing I try to do with any piece. But I'd like to hope that people who come in, and who know all about Elvis' music, will get some of that and also that they'll be taken somewhere else. We're still working out a lot of things, such as what Elvis lost when he became a parody of himself, and his pivotal relationship with his mother.
"And the infatuation of Elvis impersonators is interesting, because it's also an infatuation with death, so there's a quality of necrophilia to it," he says.
"Tupelo" will mark the first time Mr. Davis has employed pedal-steel guitar in any of his work. ("It'll be the weirdest pedal-steel you've ever heard," he promises.)
"Tupelo" also will employ an orchestra and improvising instrumentalists, as well as various vocalists, and will mix traditional styles with atonality and newer innovations that have rarely, if ever, been associated with the Presley oeuvre.

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