Bittersweet Symphony: Inside the Sex and Drugs of 'Mozart in the Jungle'

How Amazon's new series gives classical music a punk-rock attitude

Gael García Bernal in 'Mozart in the Jungle.' Credit: Amazon

For the record, Lola Kirke wants you to know that the most nauseating way to play the oboe is with a hangover. "It's suffocating," the actress says with a laugh. "You basically use all the air in your body, and you feel like you want to vomit."

Kirke knows this from experience. As she was preparing to play Hailey Rutledge, the oboe-tooting twentysomething lead role in the series Mozart in the Jungle, the first season of which premieres in full on Amazon Instant tomorrow, she learned the hard way how difficult it was to play after a night of drinking, something her character could relate to.

In the first episode alone, Rutledge  – an "offbeat ingénue," to use Kirke's words – participates in a spin-the-bottle–style drinking game, in which she gets trashed doing shots while playing her instrument in competition with a flautist, only to go on an impromptu audition for the fictional New York Symphony the next day. Things work out in her favor (sort of) and suddenly she's entering the cutthroat cosmos of a professional orchestra — a world that, for all of its outward pomp, resembles something akin to the backstage of a Mötley Crüe concert, as explained by Tolstoy.

The series is loosely based on oboist Blair Tindall's 2006 memoir, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music, and it delivers on its subtitle – which appears in the show on a fictitious Rolling Stone cover – with sequences about a drug-dealing timpanist and another in which a woman explains the correlation between a man's instrument "and the way he fucks." Violinists "tend to come quickly [due to] all those arpeggios," Saffron Burrows' cellist character Cynthia Taylor explains to Rutledge, while percussionists "pound you like you're in a porno."

Thanks to quirky scripts and a smart ensemble cast – which includes Gael García Bernal as the Symphony's young-buck new conductor Rodrigo, Malcolm McDowell as its outgoing maestro Thomas Pembridge and Broadway legend Bernadette Peters as the Symphony's manager, Gloria Windsor – it comes off whimsical without ringing off-pitch. "I liked that we were going to do the inside world of classical music and the fun aspect of it," García Bernal says when asked why he took his role. "[Classical musicians] all breathe and eat and fart like normal people, but onstage they are quite serious."

Part of the reason for the fun can be traced to the executive-producer pedigree behind the scenes. Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) got the idea for the series after reading a review for Tindall's book and brought in his cousin, filmmaker and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Roman Coppola, and director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) to develop it with him; Tony-nominated Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Pee-Wee Herman Show) also came aboard as Mozart's co-executive producer.

For Schwartzman – who, despite having drummed for indie rockers Phantom Planet, never sat in an orchestra pit before – Tindall's book just seemed like an obvious television series right from the start. But by his estimation, it took years of lobbying his friends to get it made. "It's about a subculture that's huge and right in front of our eyes," he explains. "It's not like a secret subculture of mermaid goths that get together. I would talk to Roman about it forever and then only recently Roman was like, 'We should try to do this.'" 

Kirke recalls hearing the names of the executive producers and, without hearing the plot, saying, "Whatever it is, let's do it," because, as she puts it, "those people are really, really, really fucking talented." But then they explained its "sex, drugs and classical music" premise. "I was like, 'What the fuck?'" she says with surprise. "Those are definitely things that I wouldn't put in the same sentence."

"There's a lot of young people who are interested in classical music you don't really think of," Coppola says of the show's potential audience. As a testament to this, the last couple of years have seen rock artists ranging from St. Vincent's Annie Clark to the National's Bryce Dessner composing orchestral music.

Prior to the show, Kirke's experience with classical music was nonexistent. "I associate a lot of it with a drill giving me another fucking filling, because my dentist is a freak about classical music," she says. Nevertheless, the actress, whose sister Jemima costars on Girls, identified with the role on a personal level. "What appeals to me about Hailey is she's a young woman struggling to understand what it means to be somebody who has only ever committed to being an artist," she says. "I identify with that."

Coppola recalls pitching the show to HBO around the time Schwartzman was costarring in the network's Bored to Death. "They were drawn to the fact that it had a female character, and it was set in New York," he says. "We were preparing it and then, all of a sudden, they did Girls, and that became very successful and deservedly so. So that made our project less appealing to them because they had sort of covered a slice of similar territory. Then someone brought it to Amazon."

After it got the greenlight, the producers began developing the story. Where the events in Tindall's memoir took place in decades past, those in Amazon's Mozart take place in the present right down to an ill-fated Rock of Ages–like musical based on the music of Styx (called Oedipus Rocks). They also expounded on some of the show's behind-the-scenes shenanigans by consulting with people they knew in the classical world.

One such person was Coppola and Schwartzman's 97-year-old great uncle Anton, who once conducted with the New York City Opera and led the ensembles who scored The Godfather Part III and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. Among the stories that he told Roman, including some about affairs going on between orchestra members (a recurring theme on the show), was one particular anecdote that made it into Mozart's third episode. "He told me about a conductor of a rehearsal waxing on and on about the theme of Beethoven's Fifth as if he's knocking at death's door – buh-buh-buh buuum – highlighting the passion and the thematic importance," Roman recalls. "And the musicians in the orchestra lean to each other and say, 'So does he want it faster or slower?'"

Incidentally, Kirke's father, Simon, played drums in the rock groups Free and Bad Company; ask her to compare the show's exploits to any tales of rock & roll excess she heard growing up, however, and the actress demures. "They're different," she says with a laugh. "His tales are pretty far out. I would love to say that there's less ego in the classical music world, though I think a lot of people within that world would disagree."

"We try to show a little bit of everything," the younger Coppola says. "The thing I'm pleased about is it's rather diverse. It has a certain bit of comedic stuff, it has racier stuff, it has genuine dramatic stuff, so it's not just one thing."

"We didn't want to run the risk of the show becoming a novelty thing: Like, let's take some classical music and pepper in some sex and drugs," Schwartzman says. "So we put a lot of personal stories there." 

One of the defining moments in the production came when Coppola and Schwartzman met with a man the latter describes as a "world renowned conductor." "I can't tell you who," he says in earnest, "I would most likely be assassinated. I'd be sitting there at dinner and a giant baton would pierce my heart from across the room." When Roman explained to the mysterious maestro that they had set Mozart in New York, because "New York City is the capital of the world," the conductor said, "Not in classical music, it's not. Classical music in New York has been dead for over 30 years. Didn't you know that?" And when they explained that Rodrigo would be coming in to save the New York Symphony, the man said, "Oh, it's pretty much impossible to rejuvenate a corpse."

"And that is the show," Schwartzman says emphatically. "That conversation really became a touchstone for Roman and I. That became like a big driving energy behind the whole thing."

Beyond the show's humor and rock & roll exploits, Mozart in the Jungle captures the world of classical music in a very real way, as professional orchestras struggle with dwindling funds, budgetary concerns and the pressure to appeal to younger audiences. One aspect of the series demonstrates that yes indeed, millennials like Lola Kirke and burgeoning geniuses like García Bernal's conductor (a clear parallel to 33-year-old Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel) are breathing new life into the art, but it also shows the effort symphonies must put into staying afloat.

Mozart's central conflict revolves around conductor Rodrigo's punk-rock attitude and desire to change almost everything about the New York Symphony. It's revealed in the first episode that the Symphony is hemorrhaging money and that Rodrigo and his fresh, flashy ideas – like playing in the darkness – were expected to save it from financial ruin. Later episodes show him navigating (and going against) union rules in order to get his art out there, such as bringing the Symphony for a performance in an alleyway, mirroring  a number of recent real-life events. New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy and shuttered in 2013 after staging its final production, an operatic take on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. The Atlanta Symphony experienced a two-month lockout over a labor dispute this year, while the Minnesota Orchestra was similarly locked out for more than a year.

Classical musicians all breathe and eat and fart like normal people, but onstage they are quite serious.

At one point in the series' third episode, Schwartzman – playing a podcaster – asks McDowell's character, "Is classical dead?" It's a question that New Yorker classical critic Alex Ross, whom Schwartzman befriended, suggested, and it's something Mozart gamely addresses in a larger way.

"I don't think music can ever die, but I would say that it would be great if it could morph and change," Schwartzman says when Rolling Stone puts his character's question back to him. "Through a lot of the pieces I've read of Alex's, there's some truly radical things happening. New blood is being pumped into it. So in one way, some version of it has to die. It's probably good if part of it dies so that a new part can come out of it.

"I read about this conductor [Iván Fischer] who was doing things that were way more insane than the stuff that we were coming up with," Schwartzman says. "After we did the scene in the alleyway, I read this article that Alex wrote about this conductor that did all of these flash concerts everywhere all over the city. It's really cool. We wanted it to be a show that's enjoyable for people and that you can laugh and also that it's interesting."

"There were a lot of people watching," García Bernal recalls of the alleyway concert he led in Mozart. "It was in a very Puerto Rican, Dominican neighborhood. So most people there in the community were very musical. They were very interested to listen to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Getting into this music has been quite an incredible journey."

To prepare for the character of genius conductor Rodrigo, García Bernal – who describes his own turn at conducting the real orchestra used on the show as overwhelming – studied the great conductors from Herbert Von Karajan to Leonard Bernstein – "and of course Dudamel, as well." But what appealed to the actor about the role, and the character's comically inscrutable offstage persona, was Rodrigo's personal crisis. "He's finding himself and he doesn't know how to make the music relevant even for the people playing it," says Bernal, who describes leading a real orchestra on the show as overwhelming. "It's a very tense thing for him to leave all his ideas behind and to go on and play in a very stuck-up, organized, bureaucratic tradition. And I think we'll see the outcome of that struggle in the next season."

Although the show has barely finished the editing process when Coppola speaks to Rolling Stone, the producer says that he, too, has begun thinking about what could happen in the show's second season. "You start daydreaming like, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if the orchestra had to travel to Japan?'" he says. "But we're in that no-pressure period of production where you're just daydreaming about it. It's the very early beginnings and we'll see if there's an appetite for more seasons, but there's a lot more to tell. We're just scratching at the tip of it."

So far, Coppola says the reaction he's gotten from the classical community about the series has been positive. Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell appears in it, the show's consultants have been positive and even great uncle Anton has been effusive in his praise. "These conductors are like children and you portrayed it perfectly," he told Roman at the show's New York premiere.

"The great preponderance of people have said, 'Thank God it's being portrayed in a way that's not so stuffy and not so esoteric and intimidating,'" Roman says. "That's the stumbling block with classical music."