By Jia H. Jung, California Local News Fellow
Margaret Cho appeared onstage last night at the Great American Music Hall in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. She stepped into an unlikely character in front of a different kind of audience – earnest fans of a heartwarming 1970s cult classic film.
The Los Angeles-based comedian with deep roots in the Ocean Beach area of San Francisco, was a special guest with the Red Room Orchestra and musician and singer Petra Haden.
The artists performed the soundtrack from Harold and Maude (1971), a quirky, dark comedy directed by Hal Ashby.
During the comedown from 1960s counterculture, Harold and Maude made its mark for touching on the themes of individuality, pacifism, love, and compassionate care. Some just remember the title as a zany, nonjudgmental love story between a young man and a woman in her seventies.
In between songs, Cho read select lines from the movie as Harold Parker Chasen. Harold, played by actor Bud Cort in the film, is a 20-year-old existing with a sense of detachment inside of a huge mansion with his lofty mother.
Weary of life and morbidly fascinated with death, he tries to spice things up and get attention by staging his suicide in many different ways while his mother copes by ignoring him, recruiting the help of psychiatric analysts, a veteran from a military school with a lost arm and apparent post-traumatic stress disorder from his battles, and, of course, blind dates.
In a wig that could have been mistaken for a great-looking short bob, Cho inhabited not only Harold’s speech inflections but also his duality – shy but daring, deadpan but sensitive, and seemingly disillusioned beyond repair yet capable of being reeled into love and dreams by his happenstance friend Maude.
Local multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger Marc Capelle, who established the Red Room Orchestra in 2017, opened the show by saying that, for everyone talking about how awful the Bay Area has become lately, “things weren’t exactly rosy in 1971, either.”
Throughout the night, he sporadically emoted about the movie’s lasting messages, as well as filming and recording locations nearby.
British singer/songwriter Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) gave works from his Mona Bone Jakon album (Apr., 1970) and then yet-to-be-released Tea for The Tillerman (Nov., 1970) albums to the film and composed originals for it. He recorded at Wally Heider Studios within Hyde Street Studios on 245 Hyde Street, just around the corner from the performance venue.
The ending scenes took place over the sea cliffs of Pacifica, just south of the city, not far from the Rose Court Mansion in San Mateo County that served as Harold and his mother’s home.
The fact that the film’s tracks were never published together in a unified soundtrack album made their live performance together all the more significant.
The performers mostly let the music do the talking.
Actress, comedian, writer, producer, and Korra voice actor Janet Varney, who read lines with the spot-on Transatlantic affectation of Bud’s mother, also blew everyone away by singing Miles from Nowhere.
Even the instrumental interludes had their time; Japanese American ethnomusicologist Marié Abe played an impressive intro to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as featured in the film.
Later, Abe told AsAmNews that her forte was the accordion, which she had played in an Ethiopian jazz band before recently moving to Oakland for her new post as an associate professor in the music department at the University of California, Berkeley.
She said that the production had contacted her just weeks ago, asking if she could pull off the iconic piano overture. She did, so quickly that there was no time to add her to the program. Cho announced her by name right when she took the stage after the cameo.
After a set including poignant performances of a monologue of Maude talking about the uniqueness of flowers in relation to uniqueness of people and the tear-jerking song Trouble, the crowd sang along boisterously to If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out and an encore of Wild World.
Cho joined her fellow performers onstage with her real hair down and Lucia, her pet chihuahua, sticking out of her pocket.
The show was a part of the lineup of the 18-day-long 21st annual SF Sketchfest, The San Francisco Comedy Festival, which started on Jan. 18 and will run through Feb. 4.
Cho will appear at the Great American Music Hall again tonight with the Red Room Orchestra at a sold-out performance of music from the 1990 surrealist David Lynch TV drama Twin Peaks, in the presence of actor Kyle MacLachlan from the series.
AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on Facebook, X, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.