the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dartmouth College 2007 Production of HAIR

Back to the Future

Imagine if Rip Van Winkle woke up and discovered his teenage children re-enacting his parents’ youth. My guess is that he’d want to go back to sleep. I had a similar experience returning to my alma mater and watching the drama department’s production of the seminal musical “Hair”. The twilight zone feeling started when the student usher told me her father was in a class a couple of years before mine. I waited in vain for re-assurance that I appeared much, much younger than Dad. Truth be told I remember THE ORIGINAL production of “Hair”. In fact my parents saw it staged prior to it being launched officially and my mother begged my father to financially back the production. My father wasn’t a prude but being a prudent businessman – he declined. The rest is…. I remember a very serious conversation with my best friend about the nude finale. I’d say the lack of clothes was more interesting than all the politics and drugs for the pre-tween crowd – we were 9 years old. I mentioned to the usher that Diane Keaton was in the original production and jokingly said she was a crowd pleaser in the final seen. She’d never heard of Diane Keaton. The joke, however, was really on me as this production lacked bare bodies – except for one very tightly choreographed, dimly lit scene. Staging this play without nudity is akin to mounting Macbeth with no violence. But I understand the director’s choice. This is 2007 not 1969 – this is Dartmouth College not the Public Theater – this is Iraq with a volunteer army not Vietnam with a draft. The overall effect was a disconcerting view of the past and the present.

Technically the production was strong. By and large the students dance and sang their hearts out – certainly solos should have been re-assigned, staging was off in parts… but lets not quibble – for a student production it was an “A”. But this is “Hair” and the whole point of the play is getting a good grade doesn’t matter. It’s a strange undertaking to resurrect the zeitgeist of the recent past. The students will have a much easier time with next term’s production of “Julius Caesar” – their parents didn’t actually live through the fall of Rome so they’ll be plenty of confidence with which to use their newly minted artistic licenses. The main problem with their efforts was a sense of strain. Every performer on that stage is a young person saddled with student loans, worried about AIDS and terrorized by environmental catastrophe – not to mention the two overseas wars… the struggles in “Hair” failed to measure to today’s economic and social challenges. This is not to say that the 60s youth had a walk in the park but the non-singing portion of this show has the sort boy/girl drama that would barely register with your average 7th grader. “Hair” is a reaction against the 1950s and ironically it has its roots in a fairly conventional American original – the Musical Comedy. Today’s young people don’t line up for musicals unless they happen to be in New York with their parents. Is it any wonder that these performers failed to muster an authentic sense of revolution and rage? I can only imagine the back-stage talk: so did they have health insurance back then? They’d probably have an easier time relating to a more recent youth oriented smash musical. I’m sure you’d hear some genuine cries during a rendition of: “How we gonna pay! How we gonna pay! How we gonna pay! THIS MONTH’S RENT!!!!!”

There is much talk these days about the lack of activism amongst young people and general criticism of the 1960s. “Hair” holds an interesting lens in which to view both those questions. This play originated in a landscape probably closer to present day Iran. Homosexuality was an illegal disease. Many rape laws of that period were based on the Common Law notion of woman as property. The ability of people of color to gain unrestricted access to public transportation and accommodation was a new concept. New York City and other municipalities revoked “cabaret cards” (a license to work) to many performers on the grounds of obscenity or prior narcotics convictions. Given this reality one can better feel the resonance of songs about drug-use, love and equality sung by a scantily clad multi-racial cast. It might seem quaint to a modern eye but this was cutting edge. Tom Brokaw has recently released a book about the generation after his “Greatest Generation”. In “Boomers” one of the leaders of the Columbia student uprisings talks about how “the other side won”. Certainly the rise of Ronald Reagan and new religious right has given support for this notion. It is important to point out, however, that Ronald Reagan was the first divorced President. The fact that this was a complete non-issue can be directly attributed the liberalization of mainstream notions of acceptability. It is also interesting to note that many mega-churches take their cues from 60s era music happenings rather than standard church fair of the early 20th century. The whole notion of casual dress for dining or travel is something the current generation takes for granted. It would not have been unheard of for a gentleman flying in a commercial airplane prior to 1960s to be refused a boarding pass for failing to wear a jacket and tie – there is no question such a person would be refused entry to any urban restaurant or nightclub. The effects of the “Hair” era are more than cosmetic – ask the last three Secretaries of State. Certainly the ideals of racial harmony, sexual equality, progressive attitudes about the underclass… have all fallen woefully short. But make no mistake we live in a world born of the 60s not the 50s.

The sour notes sounded by the former radical leader and others stems from a sense that our society, despite our economic and technical prowess, has regressed. There is a fondness for a simpler time. Even monsters such as Manson seem re-assuringly crazy compared to Harris & Kleilbold. The carping about “the kids” is nothing new. To people who remember a world without answering machines young people seem callow and distracted. There is no doubt all the “advances” have made for a more the over-extended, hypercompetitive America, but not dumber. Verbal and communications skills have been negatively affected but today’s 9 year old has mastered more gadgets than their predecessors – they can do more than re-program a VCR. We can bemoan their deficits but remember there are plenty who reminisce about the days when people would dress up to eat out. There is a reason our government is nervous about calling a draft. Today’s youth might not march on Washington – they’d shut down the economy via a modem from their living room. Janis, Jimi and Jim OD’ed but Kurt blew his head off. There’s a difference. Don’t mess with these kids – they won’t be dancing and singing “Let the Sunshine In”. It’s the dawning of a new age and its not Aquarius.

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