I was a little surprised when I read last week that HAIR was going to be the next NBC “Live” musical. Surprised for critical reasons: HAIR is a problematic musical in terms of plot and a bit antiquated when it comes to women. It’s also going to be challenging to stage for TV, e.g., there’s going to have to be some very careful lighting if they are going to stay true to the nudity involved.
But more surprised in terms of the timing: the adjective “anti-war” is virtually inseparable from this show and the announcement was made during the week leading up to Memorial Day. Maybe the culture at large pays little attention to theater but I was expecting there might be folks a little irked by that juxtaposition.
It also came during a week when patriotism as a concept has been buffeted by another round of rhetorical bluster thanks to the NFL’s announcement about kneeling during the national anthem. The cacophony on social media about it all led one friend of mine to declare “I’ve never been less proud to be an American.”
The politicization of patriotism is profoundly depressing. One’s love of country can arise from so many sources -- is any more valid than the other? My father served in the military during the Korean War and, particularly after WWII, I’m sure that military service seemed like the best way to bolster American values. A generation later, I grew up thinking Woodward and Bernstein were the most patriotic of Americans because they diligently worked to expose a criminal enterprise being directed from our highest office, helping to remove a cancer infecting our country.
Maybe HAIR is actually a perfect musical to be revived on the national stage right now. In addition to “anti-war,” the words that most show up in relation to HAIR are “brazen,” “jubilant,” and most important, “optimistic.” Lurking behind the day-to-day shocks and discomforts about the direction of the country today lies an incipient pessimism about rifts never getting mended, polarization continuing to grow until the fabric of our society is truly torn asunder.
Fifty years ago, before most people reading this were even born, a groundbreaking musical with catchy tunes brazenly suggested that it was ok to “do whatever you want, just so long as you don't hurt anyone.” It showed young people naked, not just physically but more importantly emotionally: fear, pain, excitement, love and devotion are all exposed.
Fifty years ago, we “let the sun shine in” with hope for a better tomorrow, even when acutely aware of the horrors of the present. That seems like a theme just as fitting in 2018 as it was in 1968.