This is another album that divides Zappa fans. Originally a triple album (released in its entirety on two CDs), many fans felt that the heavy use of previously released songs made this album an expensive rip-off. Many other fans, especially those who have been into Zappa for a long time, think this album is brilliant. I fall in the camp who believe that the bad outweighs the good on this one.
The basic idea behind this album is a parody of Broadway musicals. Frank even jokingly printed "Original Cast Recording" on the cover, and was amazed when the nitwits at the Grammy awards actually nominated Thing-Fish for best original cast recording. D'oh.
Inside the Broadway parody concept, there is a complex web of plotlines and ideas, many of which are good, but where the album falls down is in its recycling of material. It's almost as if once he came up with the idea, Frank was so impatient to see it come about that he didn't want to take the time to write all new songs, so he just reused a bunch from recent albums. There is some new material, but even that sounds better in the live versions that are available. Plus the album has racist, sexist and homophobic overtones that are just too thick to be ignored. Had Frank taken the time to prune out some of the crap and write more good, original material, this could have been a killer album. As it is, even its supporters often call it a "flawed gem".
The basic plot involves a whiney, white, middle-class couple who go to the theater to see a Broadway style play. They're expecting wind sweeping across the plain, and fairies on a string, but they're in for a big surprise. Because the play has been taken over by the Thing Fish and his Mammy Nuns. These are ex-convicts who were, without their knowledge, experimented on by the government. Frank implies that the government created the AIDs epidemic to try to get rid of the gays, and now they're playing around with some new disease to kill off the blacks. But it doesn't kill them, it mutates them into beasts with duck bills and potato heads - the Thing Fish and his henchmen (or henchwomen). The Thing Fish himself talks like the King Fish from Amos and Andy.
Following this so far? Well, it gets much more complicated. The middle-class couple who just wanted to see a show end up being the show, as Rhonda gets her fur coat sprayed with "theater piss", and Harry is lured away by a Mammy Nun. He meets himself as a boy, and Rhonda learns that Harry is actually gay. Regardless, young Harry eventually mates with a blow-up doll called the Artificial Rhonda, and creates the Crab-Grass Baby, who talks like a computer. Of course, it turns out boy-Harry isn't the real father, but one of his ex-lovers is. Still following all this? It suddenly changes gears at the end when Rhonda reveals that she's a secret feminist, and then starts having graphic sex with her office equipment to try to get Harry's attention. Hunh? Got me. It all ends with a backwards vocal version of No Not Now from Ship Arriving Too Late....
Admittedly, the Thing Fish dialog is damn near impossible to resist, and people talk like a Thing Fish in the Zappa newsgroup all the time. The problem is that there are three songs from You Are What You Is, two from Ship Arriving..., and three from Zoot Allures (including the overused Torture Never Stops), and the only differences from the original versions is usually some extra commentary from the Thing Fish thrown on top. Of the original tunes, The Mammy Nuns, The Evil Prince, and Brown Moses are done better as live versions on the You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore series. Even Clowns on Velvet has a much better live version available on bootlegs with a guitar solo by Al DiMiola.
On the plus side, it's interesting to note that the backing tracks for That Evil Prince and The White Boy Troubles are actually early versions of Amnerika, one of the best tracks from Civilization, Phase III. Plus, regardless of whether or not the rest of the album works as a parody, the over-the-top Broadway-style piano piece Wistful Wit a Fist-Full is hilarious.
In the end, since this album has so many supporters I guess it's something that anyone who's seriously into Zappa should hear and decide about for themselves. But you won't get a glowing recommendation from me.