Sunday, August 30, 2009

Everybody's Protest Musical: Hair on Broadway

Last night at the end of Hair everyone was invited to come dance on the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. The soundtrack for the festivities was the catchy "Let the Sun Shine In," known to most folks in versions by the Fifth Dimension. [N.B. The title is indeed "Sun Shine" (noun verb) and not "sunshine" (compound noun) contrary to many misspellings.]

So why did this feel-good act of audience participation turn me into the Grinch that stole the patchouli? Because it seemed to undermine the otherwise powerful ending of the show.

For those unfamiliar with the plot (such as it is), everything loosely revolves around Claude, the anglophile white guy from Flushing who tries to run with the hippies but ultimately can't bring himself to go all the way and burn his draft card. In the end, he goes to Vietnam like a good soldier, and soon after comes back dead. Why he succumbs to this pressure we never find out for sure...

Director Diane Paulus delivers a striking tableau to inform the audience of Claude's death: he appears lying atop a large American flag spread across the center of the stage, still sporting his full dress military uniform and his newly-shorn haircut. In response his friends sing "Let the Sun Shine In," with the backup instruments slowly dropping out with each chorus, leaving the company singing a cappella. They continue singing as they file off stage. Wow, I thought, it's a dirge, not a feel-good pop number. And that verb really makes all the difference: let the sun shine in. By contrast, "Let the Sunshine In" sounds like something Snow White might croon to her woodland friends.

Lights down and that's the show. BUT, with nary a second to spare the lights are back up and the band has struck up again with "Sun Shine," and following the curtain calls, the cast beckons the audience onto the stage to dance and feel the love. Claude (played by Gavin Creel) cavorts on a scaffold adjacent to the proscenium, exhorting the crowd to keep making some noise, his military cut spiked up into a rockstar 'do. (And looking a lot hotter without the greasy hippie wig, just to put that out there. I may be a Grinch but I am not made of stone.)

This is not to say I have something against curtain calls. It would be perverse to make Gilda stay in her sack at the end of Rigoletto while the men who screwed her over take their bows. The plot is over and we can let the performers take some credit. And I have nothing against breaking down the fourth wall...engaging with the audience qua audience can be quite effective.

But there's something lobotomizing about following up a purportedly tragic ending with an on-stage love-in, with the tragic hero, of all people, acting like the head cheerleader at a pep rally. It makes you, well at least me, wonder whether instead of having just seen a thoughtful revival of "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" you actually just paid too much money for a high-end hippie drag show. As my hero Tom Frank has been saying for years, capitalism will use every opportunity to commodify your dissent, and maybe I'm expecting too much from Broadway, which is by nature a thoroughly commercial enterprise.

But how about doing something interesting? How about restaging Hair in present-day Williamsburg, awash in trustafarians hopped up on americanos, loafing in the shadows of the unfinished high-rise condos whose units no longer look like such an attractive investment opportunity to the parents back home in Houston or Atlanta. It's August 2009, and universal health care seems to be going the way of its longtime champion from Massachusetts...

Except this is where the directorial concept collapses. Because the hipsters are too engrossed in their iPh--, I mean, creativity ("Hey have you seen that new iProtest app?! So hilarious...") to put any countercultural energies to work in service of a cause. (And canvassing for Obama doesn't count, because even your mom was doing that. So last summer.)

It's banal, but not necessarily depressing, to see Broadway re-colonize the counterculture of the '60s in 2009. Musical theater has been doing that for years...from Bohème to Rent. But what is depressing is to realize that our counterculture has been so thoroughly colonized by the forces that it might undermine as to make protest almost unthinkable. Take it from Bono, the once and perhaps future King of Ireland. Is buying a Blackberry really this generation's chance to change the world? So much for the Age of Aquarius...

1 comment:

Emily Rutherford said...

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. The finale/curtain call/final audience participation was awkward, and I think it works a lot better on the original cast recording, where "Sun Shine In" stays upbeat (though necessarily bittersweet).

In 1969, no one knew how Vietnam was going to turn out--they had to have hope that it was going to be okay, and that an atomic bomb wasn't going to destroy the world, and that you could live in the here and now. It seems a fair amount of the music and art of that period combined joyousness with tragedy or dark humor in interesting ways (as Flesh Failures/Sun Shine In does). But, knowing how things worked out, and nowadays having perhaps a more cynical attitude to senseless wars and manipulative governments, things are necessarily different. And I think it remains an open question whether Hair translates well into 2009, and whether we can interpret it honestly knowing what we know now.

The original cast recording is probably my favorite album (hence why I'm so opinionated about it). Good stuff.