Perhaps the central message of Zapata! The Musical is that history repeats itself. The lesson itself seems perfectly valid, but the musical, which chronicles the life and times of Emiliano Zapata (Enrique Acevedo), hinges on an historical comparison that seems utterly misguided. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Occupy Wall Street movement probably do share a thing or two in common – namely, class warfare – but these similarities are not nearly resonant enough to create a musical that is coherent and unified. And so, despite its admirable social consciousness, Zapata! The Musical is ultimately a confused and tedious piece of work.
The musical’s opening scene shows Tom Magnani (Andrew Call) returning home to find his father’s lifeless body. Presumably a wealthy Wall Street tycoon, Tom’s father has chosen to take his own life because of his despair over the economic downturn. Tom soon takes his father’s gun and vows revenge against the “1 percenters” who he deems responsible for his father’s suicide.
But when Tom goes to an OWS protest and tells his friends what he plans to do, one of those friends knocks him unconscious with a protest sign (WE ARE THE 99%). What remains unclear is whether the rest of the musical, which chronicles Zapata’s role in the Mexican Revolution, is something that Tom has dreamed up in his unconscious state. But before we know it, Tom has morphed into Eufemio Zapata, Emiliano’s brother.
The conflict in Mexico begins with the government’s theft of peasants’ land. When Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata visit President Porfirio Diaz (Eliseo Roman) to protest the government’s unfair treatment of the peasant population, Diaz defends his government’s actions, and even goes on to suggest that he will lower mercenaries’ taxes. Diaz’s words are surely meant to remind us of the Occupy movement and its frustration over the government’s refusal to raise taxes for those who can easily afford it.
Despite the frustrations that he encounters during his conversation with Diaz, Emiliano Zapata pledges that he will never resort to violence. As he puts it, he would much rather smoke cigars and drink cognac. But his pacifist sentiments will not last. After he witnesses the killing of an elderly peasant, at the hands of a ruthless Mexican official, Zapata comes to believe that violence is the only way to bring about change, since violence is the only language that Mexico’s government seems to understand.
It’s a devastating truth for Zapara to arrive at, but it’s even more devastating, perhaps, for the women in this musical. As Zapata’s mother-in-law to be (Natalie Toro) laments in a particularly moving number, “What kind of men love only guns?” Zapata! does well to showcase the senselessness of all violence, and aptly reminds its audience that any measure that can help prevent armed conflict is, unequivocally, a good thing.
It’s a lesson that the revolutionaries never take to heart. By the height of the Revolution, Zapata and his followers are bloodthirsty, hoping to kill as many adversaries as they possibly can. Only Zapata’s wife, Josefa (Maria Eberline), has enough sense to remind her companions that they have all experienced heartbreaking losses in light of the violence that the Revolution has caused. Why should they crave even more bloodshed?
Even if Zapata! conveys its pacifist message in a manner quite moving, the musical itself does not seem to have a clear enough sense of history for its material to truly resonate. What director Elizabeth Lucas does not properly demonstrate is that Zapata was a figure of national importance, even during his own lifetime. Zapata’s marginalized, provincial background may have helped shape his ambitions and beliefs, but Zapata – in this production, anyway – seems to be a local, small-town hero. He is not, in other words, the transformative figure (for better or worse) that the history books have made him out to be.
When the musical ends, audiences might finds themselves wondering whether Zapata! lauds or scorns its title character. On the one hand, this musical warns against violent outbreak; but on the other hand, Zapata!’s closing number (“We Fight For What We Love”) seems to suggest that we should never cower from our beliefs, that we should always be ready and willing to take action against those who take away what we love, be it freedom or happiness. But for all its noble intentions, Zapata! fails to make clear that certain measures designed to reclaim freedom and happiness can yield devastating results. Zapata and his followers did not figure this out until far too late. In our own historical moment, we can only hope that history does not repeat itself.
Photos courtesy John Capo Public Relations
Zapata! The Musical
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Remaining performance: 1 p.m. Sunday, July 29, 2012