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7/30/08
Musicals with a Message
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I recently caught previews of a couple of musical theater productions based on socially and politically relevant themes. Written nearly four decades apart, they shared a lot in common besides locating their respective bands prominently on stage, and raised some interesting questions about musically-delivered serious messages.

The high-profile production of Hair (subtitle: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical) is at the stadium-like outdoor amphitheater of the Delacorte in Central Park, presented by The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, through August. This show originally premiered at The Public 41 years ago before transferring to Broadway for nearly 2,000 performances.


There is something completely appropriate about it being performed outside, with cast members climbing over the tree-lined upstage fence to make their entrances onto the patchy grass stage. (A wicked summer thunderstorm held its own drama all night, but the all too life-like lightning unfortunately cut short the final act.) This production is directed by Diane Paulus.

Hair (book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni/James Rado; music by Galt Macdermot) tracks the story of Claude’s evolution from love child to drafted soldier in a pointless war. But the message gets a bit buried beneath all the love-ins and exhibitionism, which were of course main attractions as well. And the characters are so self-involved, it’s not easy to find them completely sympathetic. A handful of the show’s songs remain staples on certain AM stations, but there are also plenty of clunkers to pad the long playlist.

Neil Young's Downtown, a brief run of Neil Young’s Greendale, performed by Undermain Theatre from Dallas, was part of the Ice Factory 08 festival, at the Ohio Theater on Wooster Street, which seats less than 100. This staged production of Young’s 2003 rock opera fit right into this old-Soho bohemian venue, where the industrial streetside doors, at loading dock height, opened to serve as air conditioning prior to the show’s start.

Greendale’s story line meanders more than a straight-forward musical, and the laconic structure feels somewhat like a sketch of real life. It follows the Green family’s three generations through time, and the impact of commercial development, and political and environmental change. Sun, the daughter, morphs from sweet flower child to fugitive radical. Young’s strong, spare song list carries the show along forcefully to the end. Greendale was adapted for the stage by Bruce DuBose and directed by Katherine Owens.

Both Hair and Greendale are major vehicles for social commentary. Both are earnest, although Hair has many wacky moments and the phenomenon that was the 1960s. But they are rarities in a time when most of the top grossing Broadway shows feature cartoon characters or pop groups.

Sure, there are dramas that are more serious and message-driven. But is there an audience for serious message musicals or operas? Or does our time demand pure escapism when it comes to stories told through music?

Photo: Neil Young’s Greendale. Photographer: Brian Barnaud

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.