January 14, 2015

Imagine running a marathon in stilettos. While singing your heart out. That’s the kind of mad feat the singular performer Taylor Mac has embarked upon in his magnum opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which will ultimately climax in an epic show to be performed for 24 straight hours. For now, Mr. Mac — and his collaborators, and his audiences — are merely in the training stages. The first two parts of this staggering undertaking, celebrating the songs from the first half of the 20th century, are being presented at New York Live Arts in association with the Under the Radar Festival. (The whole will cover the life span of America: 1776 through 2016, when that epic performance will take place.) The first program, which runs through Saturday, explores the songs from the first three decades: the 1900s through the 1920s. Next week, it’s on to the following three decades, and on Jan. 25, Mr. Mac will perform both parts together, in a miniature (!) six-hour marathon. With its scholarly title, Mr. Mac’s show may sound soberly academic — like a singing textbook — but if you’ve ever seen him in performance, you know there’s nothing even faintly fusty about him. To classify him as a drag queen would be far too limiting, but, yes, the lithe and statuesque Mr. Mac generally performs in glitter-bedecked dresses and elaborate headgear, in kabuki-white makeup generously applied and sprinkled with sequins. (His longtime costume designer, who goes by the daffy name Machine Dazzle, has outdone himself here.) While Mr. Mac’s appearance suggests an exotic cross between Marlene Dietrich and pioneering gender-skewing performers like the Cockettes, his cozy performing style — as in his similarly expansive The Lily’s Revenge — cuts through the glamorous artifice with winning geniality. He may look like a diva from another planet, but his spike heels are firmly planted on earth.