Forgotten diva could be a Mean Old Mama

 

THE ARTS:  Mama Cass was the first woman on the cover of Rolling Stone . Now a stage show has been built around her, writes Tony Clayton-Lea

She may have been the first woman subject of an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, but Mama Cass Elliot seems an unlikely pop icon, neither enigmatic, a borderline genius, glam- orous nor particularly controversial. That makes The Songs Of Mama Cass, a musical marking the 30th anniversary of her death, seem either an intriguing folly or a major show in the making.

Initially staged at the Focus Theatre in Dublin as part of last year's fringe festival, the show has been pumped up with more songs, more of a narrative context and a full band. The three key players remain: Bill Hughes as producer and director, Ronan Johnson as musical director and Kristen Kapelli as Elliot.

According to Hughes, the idea for the show had been gestating for a couple of years. "I felt the forgotten diva was Mama Cass," he says, "and I was conscious of the date of her 30th anniversary. I conceived it with a view of doing it for the PBS channel, in the US, but I needed someone to sing and look the part. I was judging a talent show, and when Kristen came on stage I thought she was perfect. It was that simple; I decided to build the show around her. Joe Devlin of Focus was looking for a late-night fringe show, and when the festival accepted it everything just fell into place."

Her gorgeous voice and full figure made Elliot the obvious focal point of The Mamas and the Papas - and perhaps the epitome of the 1960s sound of free-thinking America. On one side were the considered pop of The Beach Boys and the cod-poetry-driven rock of The Doors; on the other were the harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas and their hippy- dippy songs of peace, love and understanding.

Born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19th, 1941, Elliot moved in the late 1950s from her Maryland base to New York, to become more involved in the Greenwich Village folk movement. Meeting people who would go on to form The Lovin' Spoonful and similar outfits, Elliot eventually joined The New Journeymen, the three people with whom she would form The Mamas and the Papas: Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips.

Initial concern about Elliot's size - Doherty and the Phillips feared she would be considered unattractive; so much for the egalitarian Age of Aquarius - was ground down by Elliot's persistence. A move to Los Angeles proved fortuitous, and from there began the new band's reign as America's Fantastic Four, from 1965 to 1968.

It wasn't all lightness of being and wafting patchouli oil, however. Although Elliot was viewed for a time as the quintessential earth mother, several aspects of her personality conflicted with this image. Yes, she took drugs - she took acid several times when she was pregnant with her daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell, telling Rolling Stone that the notion of chromosome damage was hogwash, "a vicious plot by the establishment" - but she was by all accounts quite the fascist in the time-keeping department.

She became famous through songs written mostly by others but had no problems castigating the material - she once admitted that very few Mamas and Papas songs made her proud. She was also adamant that her Los Angeles home was not to be used as a crash pad; not even the stars of the city's songwriting community would ring the doorbell without first telephoning to ask if it was OK to call over.

Most of all, though, despite the earth mother connotations, she loathed being called Mama Cass, coming to realise that the moniker was more a stigma than a boon. "I fought against it all my folk-singing life," she said. "Before I was even with The Mamas and the Papas I hated it. Everyone would say, hey, mama, what's happening? But then The Mamas and the Papas came along and I was stuck with it." Even Elliot's successful solo career, after the group split, was from time to time blighted by chivalrous misconceptions, most notably a disastrous three-week engagement in Las Vegas that opened and closed on the same night. Rather than play the professional hippy, Elliot discarded a $10,000 script and weeks of preparation for an ad-libbed show of misconstrued sincerity and honesty. She had wanted, she said, to blow their minds. Instead she almost blew her career. Clearly, Elliot was a woman of discordant halves.

Kapelli, the Irish-American singer portraying Elliot, agrees with Hughes that Elliot's was creatively and personally contrary. "I bring absolute understanding to the role," she says. "My idea of Cass was that she was warm and funny but not one to suffer fools gladly. Most importantly, I understand her songs: I can feel what she's singing and I can understand what it's like not being a size eight and some of the comments that can come across because of that."

It has been said that Elliot did for overweight girls everywhere what Barbra Streisand did for Jewish girls in Brooklyn: she gave them a sense of identity and purpose, a reason for self-betterment in a society that, no matter how superficially liberal, still looked upon shape and size as defining elements in a person. In short, and for perhaps only a time, Elliot redefined beauty.

It was, however, her weight that caused Elliot to die, in 1974 at the age of 32, in a London flat owned by the singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. Weighing 238 pounds - about twice the proper weight for a woman of her height and build - she succumbed to a heart attack brought on by obesity and crash diets.

Her legacy may be slight, but its generous, harmonious vibration remains. "Honesty is all you need," she once said; it was the motto of a person essentially free of spirit and with no wide-reaching ambitions. Her role model was, curiously, the dancer Isadora Duncan, an artist who knew all about tactile, virtually weightless expression.

"I know that woman," Elliot once reminisced, perhaps with a tinge of envy. "Not Sarah Bernhardt or Gertrude Lawrence; definitely Isadora. She rules."

The Songs Of Mama Cass is at Spirit, Dublin, from January 12th to January 24th