Frank Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’ checking in at Disney Hall

A portrait of musician Frank Zappa and his wife Gail, September 15th, 1972.
(Archive Photos / Getty Images)

At Wednesday’s 10th birthday party for Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels.” It’s made up of 13 orchestral suites by the late L.A. rock star and composer, only parts of which surfaced in his 1971 “200 Motels” feature film and double-LP soundtrack album.

Zappa, who died 20 years ago of cancer just short of 53, devoted much of his creative energy to humorous scoffing at most aspects of the human condition. He luxuriated in scatology and didn’t hesitate to dwell cartoonishly on what Monty Python called “the nasty bits.” “200 Motels” is no exception.

He was not the type to relish birthdays, noting in his 1989 autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” that he couldn’t stand Thanksgiving, Christmas “or any other traditional family gathering.” But even Zappa might have been tickled at the thought that he would commandeer one of the world’s great concert halls on its 10th birthday, filling its stage with 166 performers, including Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting a 115-member orchestra.

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Among other things, faithfully performing the score of “200 Motels” will induce the L.A. Phil, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, 13 singer-actors (among them Diva Zappa, the youngest of the composer’s four children, who plays a groupie named Janet) and a five-member rock band to essay a suite called “Penis Dimension.” While singing it, each of the 32 chorus members will brandish an illuminated sex toy, per Zappa’s written instructions.

While his devotees may wish to classify Zappa’s penchant for dwelling on anatomical parts and bodily functions as Rabelaisian,others have dismissed it as puerile. There’s less to argue over when it comes to the composer’s wide-ranging and idiosyncratic musical imagination, displayed in his complex rock music and in the orchestral compositions he worked on persistently from his midteens onward and not just as a sidelight.

Growing up in the San Diego and L.A. suburbs during the 1950s, Zappa fell in love with the R&B and doo-wop groups he collected on 45s and with the 20th century classical composers Edgard Varese and Igor Stravinsky. His subsequent career followed both tracks, and “200 Motels” may be where they most prominently intersect.

Salonen, who guided Disney Hall’s launch a decade ago, programmed its first six seasons as the L.A. Phil’s music director and has an ongoing connection as the orchestra’s conductor laureate, chuckled frequently recently while discussing “200 Motels.” He’ll conduct the piece amid a seven-concert 10th-anniversary series in which he’s also leading the Phil in programs featuring Debussy, Bartok, Ives, Sibelius and his own violin concerto.


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“We were scratching our heads for a long time, wondering what to do” for the night of Oct. 23, marking exactly 10 years since the hall’s opening night, Salonen said. Then the L.A. Phil’s artistic team suggested he peek into the score of “200 Motels.”

Salonen had owned rock albums by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention during his youth in Helsinki — “I was very attracted by this anarchic, irreverent spirit of his,” he recalls — and has conducted some of Zappa’s shorter pieces in Europe. Around 1990, after Zappa learned Salonen was to be the L.A. Phil’s next music director, he invited the young conductor to the Laurel Canyon home he’d bought in 1968. They looked over some of Zappa’s unpublished scores and listened to unreleased electronic music.

But Zappa’s music was heard just once in Salonen’s 17 years as music director. “There’s no real reason why,” he said, “other than that I was busy commissioning work by composers who were alive.” David Robertson conducted the only piece done on Salonen’s watch, the eight-minute “Dupree’s Paradise” in 2008. In 2009, during Gustavo Dudamel’s first season as music director, John Adams anchored a concert with selections from one of Zappa’s last orchestral works, “The Yellow Shark.”


Salonen said that when he opened the “200 Motels” score, “I thought, ‘This is very mad and therefore very attractive. It’s about time I got my little hands on this one.’”

“It’s a lot of fun, it’s outrageous, it’s kind of incomprehensible at times,” he elaborated. “It goes between the trashiest of sentiments to real interesting and really profound thoughts and everything in between. The one thing that’s completely missing from the piece is reverence, which is a very nice change.”

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Salonen said he must have seen at least snatches of the “200 Motels” film but didn’t remember the music or any of the scenes.


It’s a famously chaotic movie — partly because Zappa, shooting in a London studio with his band, assorted actors and dancers and a less-than-unanimously-enthusiastic Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, had less than a week of filming and completed only a fraction of what he’d intended.

He had to deal with unlikely mishaps too complicated to enumerate. Ringo Starr donned a Zappa-like mustache and hair to play the auteur’s alter-ego. The ex-Beatle’s boyishly handsome chauffeur, Martin Lickert, was enlisted for a key role when the Mothers’ bassist quit on the first day of rehearsal, saying he was fed up with playing Zappa’s “comedy music.”

The main theme, stated in the title of one of the orchestral suites, is that “Touring Can Make You Crazy.” Subjects include the mutual libidinousness of rock musicians and their groupies, the vacuousness of journalists, and the alternately goofy and resentful intraband dynamics of the Mothers.

The dissonant, fractured orchestral music helps convey the disorientation that comes with life on the road. Zappa based the piece’s title on his estimate of his band’s touring concerts and concomitant lodgings from 1966 to 1970.


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Probably the least silly thing is his take on the psychic damage inflicted by feelings of sexual inadequacy. These woes are humorously expressed in “Penis Dimension” and the hope that they might be overcome and turned into a sense of fulfillment comes through in the hymn-like finale “Strictly Genteel.”

But “200 Motels” the concert is not an attempt to replicate or adapt “200 Motels” the movie, which is now streaming on Netflix. Excising rock, country and soul music numbers played on the soundtrack album by the Mothers alone, it aims to corral and perform the entire orchestral and choral score that Zappa had written but lacked the budget or time to realize.

Gail Zappa, who oversaw her husband’s business affairs during his lifetime and has shepherded his musical legacy since his death, said he’d been writing orchestral music prolifically through the late 1960s when an opportunity arose to hear it performed.


After a chance meeting between Zappa and Zubin Mehta, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, at L.A. radio station KPFK-FM, Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra’s top executive, ran with the idea of a collaboration.

On May 15, 1970, the L.A. Phil teamed with Zappa and an expanded, nine-piece version of the Mothers of Invention for a concert centering on excerpts from “200 Motels” at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Zappa was so eager to have his orchestral music performed that he shelled out $42,000 in today’s money to have sheet music prepared for nearly 100 orchestra players.

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“Frank … was elated,” then-secretary Pauline Butcher recalled in her 2011 memoir, “Freak Out: My Life With Frank Zappa.”


The film was made in London because the Royal Philharmonic’s fee considerably undercut American orchestras. After its release in late 1971, Zappa pretty much put “200 Motels” behind him — except for his lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall, whose management abruptly canceled a February 1971 concert of the piece, having deemed it obscene. The case came to trial in 1975, the judge ruling that “200 Motels” was not obscene and that the hall had violated its contract but that Zappa deserved no compensation.

Zappa “never mentioned ‘200 Motels’ once during my seven years with him,” recalled Scott Thunes, who played electric bass in his band through 1988 — the end of Zappa’s touring days. “That said, we ended almost every concert with ‘Strictly Genteel,’ so maybe he harbored a little bit of ‘someday’ wistfulness.”

Thunes and Ian Underwood, the Mothers’ keyboards player and saxophonist from 1967 to 1974, will be in the rock rhythm section for the Disney Hall concert, playing in the passages scored for both electric band and orchestra or chorus.

While the concert is billed as a world premiere, an earlier iteration of the full “200 Motels” orchestral score was performed in 2000 in Amsterdam. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra had approached Gail Zappa about doing the piece two years earlier, prompting extensive detective work to put its sheet music in order.


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Zappa’s widow said the Royal Philharmonic never returned the score used to film the movie. While her husband’s original music manuscripts were in a box in his home studio, they had been thrown out of order over the years. In 1971, Zappa apparently shuffled the order while doing editing nips and tucks for the soundtrack; his career-long working habit of plucking older material from sheet music or tapes to repurpose it in a new context may have further jumbled the sequence.

“What you’re hearing in this concert is the reconstruction of the score,” Gail Zappa said. While there haven’t been any posthumous changes or additions, she said it can’t be guaranteed that the sequence is precisely as her husband had intended. The BBC Concert Orchestra will perform the same music Oct. 29 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, under the baton of Jurjen Hempel, who conducted the 1990 concert in Amsterdam.

In L.A., James Darrah, a young, UCLA-trained opera director who’s worked previously with the L.A. Phil, is overseeing the staging. Zappa said she encouraged him to keep one visual motif from the film — the idea that the orchestra inhabits a concentration-camp like prison. Otherwise, “I said, ‘You can do anything you want.’”


Incorporating video projections on screens behind the performers and giving a prominent role to Larry the Dwarf, the Zappa alter-ego Ringo played in the film, Darrah said he aims to evoke the “dreamlike surreality” he hears in “200 Motels.” “Nothing in the piece feels to me as if it’s salacious or just there to shock people,” he said, although “there are things you probably wouldn’t want children to see.”

He’s been struck by how friends and acquaintances react when they learn he’s working on a Frank Zappa piece. Everyone has something to say about Zappa, Darrah said, most of them favorable but none lukewarm. “Whatever the opinion, it’s not halfhearted. I love that people have these visceral reactions.”

Zappa’s autobiography dwells on several sour and financially draining encounters he had trying to collaborate with orchestras during the 1970s. He found faults even in more positive sessions conducted by two of his biggest fans in the classical world, Pierre Boulez and Kent Nagano.

Working with the Phil on the present project has been strictly gratifying, said Gail Zappa, who plans to release a recording of “200 Motels” culled from the L.A. rehearsals and concert. For audiences, she said, the main question will be “how keen is your sense of humor? Depending on that, you’ll have a good time.”