Review Summary: "This is symbolism, Harry! Really deep, intense, thought-provoking Broadway symbolism! This isn't 'Dream Girls', Harry! This is the way it really is . . ."
Subsequent to 1984â€™s Them or Us, it was evident that Frank Zappaâ€™s creativity was getting rusty. In the same year, Zappa dropped the prog act once and for all, moving to a new frontier: music theater. Now, this wasnâ€™t the first time Zappa flirted with the concept of an audio play: 1979â€™s Joeâ€™s Garage masterfully slammed censorship with a colorful array of silly characters and scenarios. This time, however, more risquĂ© topics would be facetiously played with on Thing-Fish: racism, the womenâ€™s rights movement, homosexuality, and AIDS. Due to its 1984 release, these topics were not only incredibly controversial, but would make your stereotypical middle-class, suburban white family cringe in disgust as they normally pretended these issues didn't exist.
While the aforementioned qualities imply greatness, Thing-Fish is riddled with musical flaws. First of all, eight out of the twenty-two tracks are recycled Zappa tunes, six of which steal lyrics directly. Not only is this undeniably lazy in itself, but it pales in comparison to the effort displayed on Joeâ€™s Garageâ€™s soundtrack. As for the fourteen tracks with original music, theyâ€™re merely flat background drab, with â€śHeâ€™s So Gayâ€ť and â€śWistful Wit a Fist-Fullâ€ť being rare exceptions. Whatâ€™s also potentially disappointing to Zappa fans is that, with the exception of some samples, Zappaâ€™s voice is absent. For these reasons, to fully enjoy Thing-Fish you shouldn't consider it an LP, but rather a satirical audio play. By focusing on the plot, characters, and humor more than the music, said music is appropriately seen as only the story's background aid.
As for the story: itâ€™s reminiscent of comedic gold. An evil prince creates a parody of the AIDs virus in an attempt to wipe out both the African race and homosexuals. The African survivors of this virus, known as the Mammy Nuns, become deformed potato shaped monsters with strange duck lips. Their leader, Thing-Fish, serves as the narrator as he spews sentences that abuse the English language such as â€ś'Membuh, we's on Broadway! Mutha***er be buyin' dem tickets wants a lil' heart, a lil' soul . . . 'n some titty too, ef dey can git it, so, les' get y'all in positium heah, 'n get dis silly business over wit! Y'all's takin' too goddam long to grow up in Ermerica!â€ť Thing-Fishâ€™s character is a criticism of blackface actors and their caricatures of uneducated African American people in media. As a juxtaposition to this caricature, a privileged white couple from Long Island, consisting of Harry, an overeducated closeted homosexual, and Rhonda, a domineering feminist with a severe case of misandry become the musicalâ€™s protagonists. Also, absurd lyrics such as: â€śit probably wasn't real piss. . . only 'theater piss'â€ť and â€śThese are real Goddamn chains, Harry, and theyâ€™re not gonna come off with Woolite!â€ť work slapstick into the mix. All of the characters within the musical are self aware that this is a musical and often break the fourth wall. By creating four of the most ridiculous and politically incorrect, yet socially relevant characters, Zappa can keeps the audience laughing and simultaneously thinking about the social issues that plagued the 1980s.
Now, the plot has itâ€™s weak points, though they are few and brief. For instance, while the introduction of Harry-As-A-Boy and Artificial Rhonda do help further develop the privileged white couple, the inclusion of their offspring, The Crab-Grass Baby, is irrelevant and distracts from the plot, even if it is rather funny. Another flaw is the underdevelopment of the â€śAncient an' re-lij-er-musâ€ť character Brown Moses, whoâ€™s function is to religiously oppose homosexuality. However, he has so few lines and his ideas are so poorly expressed that if he were to be completely written out of the musical, the plot would be almost exactly the same. Also, Dale Bozzioâ€™s portrayal of Rhonda has some questionable acting, but because Thing-Fish, Harry, and The Evil Prince are well acted, it doesnâ€™t distract too much from the plot. These flaws are for the most part overshadowed due to the fact that The Crab-Grass Baby and Brown Moses are only minor characters and that nearly everyone except for Dale Bozzio have spot on acting.
With that said, nearly every single song - or should I say â€śsceneâ€ť - on Thing-Fish should have you laughing occasionally. Weak musical production keeps it far from perfection, but a thought-provoking and socially relevant satirical plot and cast allow Thing-Fish to be entertaining from start to finish. In a way, this is surprisingly more accessible to non-Zappa fans since they donâ€™t already have expectations going in. So, to reiterate: donâ€™t listen to this as if itâ€™s an LP, listen to it as if itâ€™s a satirical audio play and youâ€™ll probably absolutely love it... hopefully.
Ike Willis - Thing-Fish
Terry Bozzio - Harry
Dale Bozzio - Rhonda
Napoleon Murphy Brock - The Evil Prince
Bob Harris - Harry-As-A-Boy
Johnny "Guitar" Watson - Brown Moses