Let The Sun Shine In: Marriage Equality Comes to Broadway
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The current revival of the Broadway show Hair, the late-1960s musical about hippie culture and the Vietnam War, demonstrates how a different context for a work of art creates new meaning for a new audience.
Today, the civil rights battle over marriage equality becomes the new backdrop for a protest musical peppered with religious imagery at every turn -- lesbian and gay folks are left hoping that we may finally be experiencing the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
Hair, Circa 1968
The original production of Hair was a departure for the Broadway stage because of its radical political content and use of rock music. Hair was also the first Broadway production to embrace nudity as a dramatic device.
In the show, flower children unapologetically introduce their lifestyle to the audience with joy and power; but the Army draft upends their lives, and the audience is pulled into the characters' Vietnam-era ethical dilemmas and psychedelic trips.
While Vietnam is the dark cloud over the story, Hair was not simply an anti-war protest piece; the musical investigates the broader civil rights movement as a key element of social change in the United States. The characters address the issue of race in America by tracing aspects of racism's history and by fetishizing the differences between blacks and whites in a manner that mocks bigotry and discrimination.
The characters form a multiracial community that foreshadows the "multicultural" movement of the 1980s and later breakthroughs in race relations, all the way through to the election of a black president.
I Am the Son of God
Broadway's quintessential subversive musical includes religious parody resembling street theater; a form traditionally known for political content that mocks sacred symbols and those in power.
Ultimately, hypocrisy in establishmentarian religion is revealed, and an alternative community is offered. While it turns religion on its head, the story of Hair also has surprising resonances with the Christian story. Claude, the lead character, believes that he is the Son of God, he has his own John the Baptist to foretell his coming, and he eventually goes through a Gethsemane experience as he sings "Where Will I Go?"
Like Jesus, Claude will be sacrificed at the end of the story, but not for the sake of the salvation of others: his sacrifice is a consequence of his own indecision, his inability to take risks, and his confusion about his identity.
He becomes one of many nameless and faceless soldiers who die for a "dirty little war" void of meaning, pointless from its inception. His death has no meaning beyond loss; it's a quiet tragedy signaling the end of connection to community and intimacy. Claude's death does not save; it does not lead to new life or immortality. It leads to invisibility.
Hair and Marriage Equality
There are many risks in doing a production of Hair today because of the ways that society has changed; the play could easily come across now as camp or nostalgia.
Yes, we are a nation that continues to wage war, which still creates indescribable tragedy in our contemporary lives. But with Iraq and Afghanistan, we "sacrificed" by going shopping, the bodies of dead soldiers were hidden from our television sets, and we allowed our civil liberties to be threatened as we looked the other way.
Rather than drawing consistent protests in the street, today's wars have been met with denial and false patriotism. With the advent of a mostly volunteer military, our current wars have become, for most of us, remote disturbances involving someone else's family. The Vietnam War, on the other hand, was easily about your family.
And yes, despite Barack Obama's election, we are continually reminded of the structural racism that continues to oppress people of color in our country. (In July alone, we saw the arrest of a world-renowned scholar on his own front porch and the banning of children of color from a Philadelphia pool.)
But the landscape of race relations has taken on many new contours since Hair first hit Broadway in the 1960s.
The human-rights struggle at the heart of this new production? Marriage equality.
Gavin Creel, who plays Claude in the current production, is openly gay and serves as a co-chairman of Broadway Impact, a group fighting for marriage equality. In a recent interview, Creel says that marriage equality is the "civil rights cause of our time."
The cast of the musical is so committed to lesbian and gay rights that it persuaded its producers to cancel its performance on Oct. 11 so the cast will be able attend a national gay rights march, organized in response to Proposition 8 in California.
The famous New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes had noted that the 1967 production of Hair included tolerance of homosexuality. Today's production moves beyond tolerance to a full-blown celebration of same-sex love and experience. Because of this, Hair has not lost its edge.
As a gay man, it is natural for me to see elements of my own story in Claude's story. Faced with decisions to embrace who he is as a flower child or to respond to the voices of authority around him, Claude clings to an escapist desire to be invisible.
Lesbians and gays have been taught throughout our civil rights battle that invisibility is our enemy; that silence equals death. Harvey Milk's message that coming out is the essential instrument for change remains the core message of LGBT political activism.
But coming out is not a onetime declaration. Coming out means being visible in our relationships, at our place of employment and in our politics. We must be continuously visible.
While he doesn't realize it until it's too late, invisibility will equal death for Claude. At the climax of the show, the audience is surprised to learn that the popular song "Let the Sun Shine In" is sung at the point of tragedy, expressing a desperate yearning for hope in the face of loss.
With lesbian and gay rights as the backdrop, Hair can inspire a new generation to open closet doors, let the sun shine in and embrace visibility. That is a sacrifice that can save lives.