Amazon’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ Bridges the Generational—and Artistic—Gap

Something old, something new, something marketable

Gale Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell in Mozart in the Jungle. (photo: Amazon Studios)

For 2016, I’ve decided my resolution is to practice more. I’ve been playing clarinet on and off for 14 years—classical, jazz and whatever else is thrown my way—and took a lengthy hiatus to get a grip on schooling, my actual career path and things in my life that aren’t television and music.

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But first, enter Amazon (AMZN)’s Mozart in the Jungle, whose second season dropped on Instant Video at midnight and what occupies my plans for the rest of 2015 until the nostalgia kicks me into practicing mode.

Classical music, often deemed inaccessible and elitist, is being represented in the most accessible form

Mozart follows a group of classical musicians in the fictitious New York Symphony as the orchestra undergoes a major face lift. Leading the pack is the eccentric Rodrigo (played by Gael García Bernal and based in part on Gustavo Dudamel, current music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic), the young prodigal director brought on to liven up the symphony’s image just as its longtime director Thomas (played by Malcolm McDowell) is on his way to retirement. Vying for a seat is Hailey (played by Lola Kirke), a young oboist looking for her shot among New York’s elite musicians.

Mozart tries to be a lot of things, some successfully: a drama, a comedy, an inside look at a creative industry—even a love letter to one, and one that many consider to be dying. It wants you to leave your preconceptions at the door and you do quicker than you imagined, curious for a look inside an under-focused career, one you wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see unless you already have a toe in the door. It does a lot of things right and some things just enough, rarely inspiring a standing ovation but it’s got heart, much like the show’s symphony itself. You get little looks into the lives of some very real characters: a brash new director who genuinely cares about his craft and his orchestra, musicians in their natural habit, knitting while scoring horror films and playing in Off-Off-Broadway shows, practicing the same bar of music over and over again and having your neighbors hate you (very real), as well as the coveted opportunities for some downtime.

Do these looks always succeed? No. For instance, I couldn’t imagine caring less about Hailey’s relationship with Alex, nor was I thrilled about Rodrigo and Ana Maria: The Novella. I’m also probably in the small boat of people that would probably sit through the show if it was just 20 minutes of rehearsal footage and not just because of how near and dear that experience is to me but because the orchestra is maybe the best character in Mozart. The show’s best moments are purely orchestra-based, such as the silent symphony, the rehearsals and the final performance that wrapped season one. In fact, I can forgive a lot of tiny inaccuracies and larger exaggerations because it’s a story that doesn’t get told and there are so many more stories to tell, especially in regards to musician camaraderie and that feeling of belonging to something intimate and yet so much bigger than you. It’s a sweet, funny show without any real antagonists besides some heavy jealousy and fear, and romantic without the romance (or at least you care more about the love of the craft than the love between the individuals). And most importantly, it takes a very important risk: Seeing a show about a symphony—or any aspect of performing arts—is wildly rare.

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Lola Kirke as Hailey in Mozart in the Jungle. (photo: Amazon Studios)

That’s what got me thinking. Having a show like Mozart on Amazon is kismet, even if ironically so. Set apart immediately by its setting and even more so by its platform, Mozart, a show about art, commerce and change is being produced not on network or even cable television but on instant streaming. Classical music, often deemed inaccessible and elitist, is being represented in the most accessible form, and streaming or not, we have a show that delves into the complexities of a career in the arts without being pedantic. Unfortunately for those who may never care enough to watch, Mozart has selling power in surprising amounts.

 Personally, in all honesty, I don’t think I would’ve ever gotten into Mozart had it not been for half a life of music performance behind me. Thankfully, Amazon knows how to make a show about the creative industry and how to sell it. The irony lies in the fact that classical music is not a particularly profitable industry. According to Nielsen‘s 2014 Year-End Report, classical music is one of the least-consumed forms of music in the US, just behind children’s music and jazz (which it only surpasses due to album sales). As Gloria, the orchestra’s general manager played by the incomparable Bernadette Peters, puts it, “Classical music has been losing money for people for five hundred years. It’s not a business.”

But despite a gaggle of think-pieces every year that say otherwise, despite venues being shuttered and album sales being low and classical music radio stations going off air, classical music is not dead. Neither is theatre or opera or ballet or any other form of the performing arts that frequently rise and fall. Instead, traditional and old-fashioned forms are being interpreted and reinterpreted. People are still composing classically but they are not just composing for concert halls; they’re writing film, TV and game scores and experimental projects. Jazz and classical look bad on paper, but both genres are being used as a base to expand further, just as music tends to do historically.

Because of that, networks are willing to expand and reinterpret, too. Over the last few years, NBC has put its faith for one night in theater, airing its annual live musical to mixed reviews but great appreciation. Its most recent, The Wiz Live! starring Shanice Williams, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, brought in 11.1 million viewers despite matching up against Thursday Night Football on CBS, up 40 percent from the year before, proof of what giving the show the love it deserves does as opposed to just letting Christopher Walken belt through the commercial breaks. In just a month, Fox will do the same, hosting Grease: Live on January 31.

So in selling the arts in a different way, Amazon has taken on maybe an admirable task. Other forms of shows about the arts have been less than successful, perhaps leading to some trepidation about doing similar shows. NBC’s Smash, a show about the making of a Broadway musical starring Megan Hilty, Katherine McPhee and a host of recurring and guest Broadway stars, lasted just two seasons, and despite a strong start lost its legacy to hate-watching.

And yet, it birthed one of the most successful one-night only events in recent years in the Bombshell benefit concert, raising over $225,000 in its first day on Kickstarter.

Say what you may about Smash (and unfortunately there is a lot to say), it did something that until recently actual New York theater has only reluctantly dipped its toes in: It brought the art to a larger audience.

Each week, viewers across the country could see the successes and failures not just of the show itself but of actors on the stage, getting a feel for the fictionalized behind-the-scenes world of Broadway. And it did that by bringing New York theater to an audience outside of New York.

Mozart in the Jungle. (photo: Amazon Studios)

The thing about classical music and opera and theater and ballet is that there are longstanding feelings by both the elite and non-elite that it is only meant for those who are a) well-off financially and b) close enough geographically to see it in person, and therefore has become this grandiose and exclusive entity that is losing its appeal because of it. Additionally, particularly in the case of classical music, it’s looked at in a different light and put to some strange higher standard. The scandalous nature of Tindall’s book when it came off the press was in part due to the fact that it detailed how people who play classical music for a living also have lives. There can’t possibly be drugs and sex in an orchestra; it’s too pure for that! Because of that, we’ve put it on the strangest pedestal, very literally saying, “This specific type of noises is only meant for a specific type of people.”

Thankfully, the times are changing. In New York, where music and art is a not-so-quiet king, opportunities and options have become available for those who seek it. Students can get to Carnegie Hall for as little as $10. There are lotteries and discounts for shows on the Great White Way daily. Even Broadway hit Hamilton, whose tickets are so sought after and so hard to come by that it’s become a punchline, hosts #Ham4Ham two hours prior every performance, offering the opportunity to see the show for just $10— a Hamilton. Even an opera at the Metropolitan can be seen from the Family Circle, the furthest level up (opera binoculars recommended) but with arguably the best sound for $25.

Tremendously, though, our streaming age offers an alternative for anyone who still can’t afford that or who live too far from the action to even dream on it. And that’s what Mozart truly gives us.

Amazon doesn’t have to fight as hard as it maybe had to two years ago. Transparent has won five Emmys and two Golden Globes with three Globe nominations pending for the ceremony next month. It was the first online show to win for Best Series and proved to the platform that taking risks pays off. Mozart received a Globes nomination for Best TV Series – Comedy, a category completely dominated by Amazon, Hulu and HBO, as well, and yet another round of Amazon pilots have come and gone, voted on and/or have been put into the rotation, like The Man in the High Castle and Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi. Add that to the streaming shows dominating the drama category, like Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black and it’s pretty evident that if you have a show that you want to make some noise and get out to as many people as possible, you put it on a streaming platform. In fact, streaming as a whole is perhaps the most inclusionary way to watch anything. You don’t need a TV and most of the time all you need is a generous friend who’s better off than you to share their password.

Whether the branches of the performing arts industry want it or not, having art available in broader markets is important. Thankfully for the classical industry, things like Live at Lincoln Center, which airs and streams concerts, ballets, operas and more on PBS, have existed since the ’70s. Now, however, joining the streaming world is BroadwayHD, founded by producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, who saw a need for a service that makes Broadway available anytime, anywhere, across multiple devices and for people of all walks of life. As Amazon is proving with Mozart and BroadwayHD is working on providing, the performing arts can be for mass consumption.

And that’s not a bad thing, especially if you want the arts to be consumed by younger audiences, especially as we continue to limit them in schools and similar avenues.

One of the show’s most common themes is the merging of old and new. There’s a constant looming fear from the older musicians that they will be wiped out by younger musicians and new trends. The younger musicians, such as Hailey, fear not making it in the industry or strive for the perfection that is not quite there. Rodrigo, young and rock star-esque, takes over for Thomas, old-fashioned but distinguished. New fundraising and marketing campaigns are adapted to save the declining orchestra. Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) serves as a bridge between both generations but is also starting to fear the future, Union Bob (Mark Blum) serves as a reminder of the separation between improvisation and doing what has always been done—each and every character is, in one way or another, feeling the pressure from one side or another, all connected by passion and fear. And so must the audience, as Mozart places the viewer in everyone’s shoes, old and young alike, to empathize rather than sympathize because it is a fear we all share in some way, no matter our profession.

With classical music, the on-again, off-again fear is that its audience is dying off and younger audiences aren’t coming in. Those who write about how classical music is dead like to cite the fact that in 1937, back when options for entertainment weren’t quite as numerous, the median age of orchestra concerts was 28. Many symphonies are adapting to try and bring in the younger audience and they know they won’t do it by playing Beethoven. US orchestra ticket sales have declined at an average annual rate of 2.8 percent, according to the League of American Orchestras. To offset that and get younger generations back in the seat, orchestras such as the Colorado Symphony and Nashville Symphony are performing video game symphonies, playing the scores of Halo, The Legend of Zelda and many more. Just this past summer, the Philharmonia Orchestra of New York and Concert Chorale of New York hosted a multimedia celebration of the music of Danny Elfman, the movie score composer best known for his collaborations with director Tim Burton. In the sold-out show, as well as at the sold-out shows in Los Angeles and London, audience members dressed up as their favorite Elfman characters to celebrate both the movies and the music.

On Broadway, it’s possible we’ve reached a Golden Age akin to the era of Rodgers and Hammerstein. According to the Broadway League, last year was the best attended and highest-grossing year in Broadway History, bringing in $1.3 billion and more than 13 million attendees. Regardless of the numbers this year, something strange happened. Billboard gave out its first five-star rating ever and named the second-best album of the year to a Broadway musical. Yes, Hamilton is a phenomenon and its success doesn’t mean the theatre industry is due to make a full 180, but the show’s chart-topping success, celebrity, trending history and, of course, $57 million in advance sales, certainly doesn’t hurt the conversation about revitalizing the performing arts.

Maybe most importantly, younger audiences want to see themselves in art and on the stage they can. Between Hamilton, The Color Purple, Allegiance, On Your Feet!, The Gin Game, Fun Home, Fiddler on the Roof, the theatre world is looking a lot more like the actual world and audiences are responding accordingly.

Mozart in the Jungle does the same. While the show lacks that level of diversity and often that kind of voice, it’s making the arts palatable for young and older audiences alike, making it palatable, accessible and enjoyable, fitting it for the layman and keeping it light enough to be entertaining, maybe even encouraging people to reach out past the show into classical music and then into other forms of performing arts as well.

In what is objectively the best episode of the first season, Hailey tells a young musician, “I was like a little alien who lived on an alternate planet from normal children. I had my oboe and I had the music, which was always running through my head. And then I eventually found the other aliens. That made things really worthwhile.”

Mozart gives you the opportunity to find the other aliens. I can only hope that Amazon and the rest of the industry continues to make the hunt worthwhile.

Amazon’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ Bridges the Generational—and Artistic—Gap