Carmines, who as assistant rector of Greenwich Village's Judson Memorial Theatre, helped create the experimental crucible that was the Judson's Poets' Theatre, and thus became one of the seminal forces of the Off-Off Broadway movement. He was 69.
Caffe Cino had Joe Cino. La Mama had Ellen Stewart. Theatre Genesis had Ralph Cook. And Judson's Poet's Theatre had the eccentric, passionate and prolific producer-composer-actor Al Carmines. From 1961, when he was hired by Judson's senior minister Howard Moody and charged with creating a theatre, until 1981, when the effects of an aneurysm forced him to resign, he wrote about 80 musicals, operas and oratorios, the New York Times reported. He often played his music in performance and was frequently called upon to act.
While the notion of a church fostering experimental and frequently irreligious theatre may be hard to fathom today, it was a natural in the early '60s for the liberal Judson Memorial Theatre, bordering Washington Square Park. According to the Times, Carmines and architect Robert Nichols were given only two guidelines to hem them in: no religious drama and no censorship.
The result delivered a creative jolt to the downtown theatre scene. Critic Richard Gilman wrote in 1963: "The Judson production of Gertrude Stein's tiny play, What Happened, was without any question a minor masterpiece, more inventive, more high-spirited and more animated than anything I have seen recently at the higher levels of professionalism...[It] was the most hopeful event this increasingly desperate pilgrim of the theatrical apocalypse has witnessed in many a week, month or even year." Carmines had a soft spot for Stein; he wrote several musicals based on the writer's work, including In Circles, which set the non-linear prose of Stein to ragtime, tango, waltz, opera, barbershop quartet, jazz and other musical styles. For the production, the composer wrote and performed a different opening number every night, according to the Times. The show won Carmines an Obie Award in 1968. He won other Obies for Home Movies and What Happened in 1964, for Promenade in 1965 and for Sustained Achievement in 1979.
Other Stein works musicalized by Carmines include Dr. Faustus Lights The Lights, A Manoir, The Making of Americans, Listen To Me and What Happened. Another favored theme was gay life. The title of one such Carmines show, 1973's The Faggot (in which he also appeared as an actor), drew the ire of the gay population.
Ten Al Carmines shows were produced Off-Broadway, including Promenade, In Circles, Peace, Wanted and Joan, which set the Joan of Arc story in the East Village.
Promenade, which speaks about war, bureaucracies and the common man, was written in collaboration with Maria Irene Fornes. Critic Steven Suskin called the music "vibrant, alive and exciting (and different)." The show has a singular place in New York stage history in that it left its name on a theatre. When the 1969 mounting was moved a new stage on the Upper West Side, the space was christened "The Promenade" specifically for the show. It is still called The Promenade.
The Judson Poets' Theater, or course, presented the work of other artists as well, including some early plays by Sam Shepherd.
Despite his prolific output and the praise routinely heaped upon his works, Carmines never achieved a big commercial success and his appeal was not widespread—though some works are frequently revived. His one stab at Broadway was W.C., a musical about W.C. Fields. It starred Mickey Rooney and Bernadette Peters, but closed out of town during a 1971 tryout.
Alvin Allison Carmines was born in Hampton, Virginia, on July 25, 1936. His father worked as a fishing trawler and his mother was a substitute schoolteacher. Raised as a Protestant, he soon developed a knack for performance, and won a music scholarship. However, he didn't go into music, but studied theology at Swarthmore. He later enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary. Upon earning his bachelor of divinity, he was hired at Judson Memorial Church.
While putting together his shows, Carmines did attend to other church duties, such as preaching sermons. According to the Times, these sermons seldom mentioned God. "I've discovered for myself that God doesn't disappear when you don't talk about him," he said in a 1966 interview.