Sunday, December 12, 2010

Something comforting about...Holidays and "Hair"

Chanukah has just wrapped up for the year, Christmas is in its full carols-are-everywhere swing, candles are burning, lights are twinkling, and over the last week, I attended a revival of the 60's "tribal" paean, "Hair" and a new musical version of "A Christmas Story."

What do they have in common?  A nostalgia for happy times, a grounding that brings gratitude not only for survival, but for the many blessings we enjoy.  Why is this particularly crucial now, in 2010 (a year that as a child, I could never have fathomed experiencing)?  Because increasingly, politics and media and world events impress on us the fragility of life and the precariousness of our good fortune.

In 1967 when "Hair" opened, I was a young teenager who perhaps should have been forbidden from seeing the production at the Aquarius Theater on Sunset Strip in LA.  I don't think my parents really knew the content--there was no internet for them to google the synopsis and read reviews describing the nude scene and snubs at authority and the mounting Vietnam war.  I saved my money until I could afford the cheapest seat, which was labled "obstructed," meaning there was a thick post blocking half the stage. 

I doubt I'd ever attended a stage play before, but this was symbolic of the electricity this new generation was creating, the counter-cultural, self-serving morals that here found expression in a very much for-profit venue.  I recall the audacity of the music, with its non-rhyming lyrics, the tie-dye-style lighting, the characters who did stuff I'd never consider, like tripping out and burning draft cards and sleeping around, and of course, forever planted in my memory is a frozen view of the infamous nude scene.  Well, the half of it on the good side of the pole.

The theater was nearly dark, and a fabric scrim dropped down in front of the actors, who stood, motionless, without a sound.  People in the audience could barely make out silhouettes.  It was assumed the characters were nude, because, after all, that was the big promise, and the big affront to moral sensitivities--a demonstration of youthful rebellion.

Flash to last weekend, when a friend and I, decked out in tie-dye, joined a motley audience of Boomers (many similarly clad) and an assortment of others (including lots of same-sex couples).  "The nude scene" was incidental. No scrim, some brighter lights, moving actors (including one woman who did a cartwheel), the back-up band playing--not a big deal.  More surprising to me was the blatantly simulated sex and nearly constant sexual moves.  Reminded me that "tribal love" for 18-25-year-olds is more about physical drives than enduring connections, a legitimate point about all that faux-significant uniting.

The music in "Hair" transported me to the gazillion times I heard the Broadway soundtrack in the following year or two after the show.  Songs like "Sodomy" and "Hair" arrogantly blasted polite convention.  And now? The hippies morphed into "baby-on-board" parents who helicopter around their kids making sure they dot their i's on college applications and have the latest iPhones.  Where's the anti-materialist, anti-establishment rebellion now?

Just about nowhere, man.  With nearly every social experiment a fizzle, we're back to good old capitalistic, entrepreneurial striving, even as the crushed economy limps along.  And when the holidays approach, we don't like the modernistic snow branches at Seattle's airport, designed not to offend.  We want "The Christmas Story," which decks the classic film about the late radio storyteller Jean Shepherd's memories of boyhood in Indiana with lots of glitzy dancing and singing.  You know, the movie with little plot but sugary vignettes: a kid who wants an air rifle his mom insists will "shoot your eye out," a class bully who gets his come-uppance, an endearing sad-sack Dad who wins a lamp with a fishnet-stocking'd leg base, a devoted Mom, a kid brother, and a classmate who gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole.

We want traditions and nostalgia and connections across generations and eras, because the year is ending and the darkness is foreboding.  Even atheists are aware that this is a time of faith, as the chill and night remind us of our vulnerability and our need for each other.  Our human confidence lowers in the deep, dank of winter, when branches are bare and the light its weakest.

It's no coincidence that the candles of Chanuka illuminate the darkest month, with the holiday's history of resistance to assimilative forces that turn away from God.  Modern people desire Christmas light displays and the symbolism of the bright star followed by the wisest of men.

I enjoyed "Hair" because it erased age and time (though the superficial "tribe" linked only through sex, drugs and bucking convention now looks pretty bogus) and I appreciated the pleasure of the audience at "A Christmas Story" even when the musical numbers seemed a bit over-the-top. An older guy seated next to me guffawed, clapped and enthused identification with the anecdotes, condensing commonalities across time.

I'm not the only one marveling at seasonal light extravaganzas, or even delighting at the twinkling white LED strings up in my living room.  Carols may be played dozens of times, but we don't tire of them because they exude comfort and security. Familiar traditions let us endure the economy and the weather with the message that we can rely on families, friends and a grander power to get past the darkness and add light like each of the days following the winter solstice.

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