On Friday night, my wife and I went to see the new (and enthusiastically reviewed) "Hair" on Broadway. Though I was born in 1969 and had regular exposure to "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell" in the 1970s, I had never heard nor seen all of "Hair." (My wife, by contrast, had memorized the whole thing at a young age, courtesy of the original LP and the movie.)
I thought the show was most compelling in the intensity of feeling manifest by the decidedly post-60s cast. Most numbers popped bright with the heat of existential investment, as if here were a lesson in what the best of the 1960s in the USA were supposed to have felt like, what we may yet remember of the heart's deepest beats from those precious years. No doubt the wars that the USA is fighting today made for a stronger poignance for this staging, as if to proffer emotional links again and again between the Vietnam era and our own. And at the end of the show, the audience is invited up onto the stage to dance with the actors and musicians in an extended "Let the Sun Shine In" -- a momentary free-for-all in which we gladly partook. And as we looked from the stage out at the rest of the audience in the Hirschfeld Theatre, up on their feet and swaying and shouting, I marveled at how many of those dancing around us were over 50, and how marvelous it was in that moment to inhabit another generation's dreams of cultures of rock and peace. Much that was dangerous about "Hair" in its original context is now lost to the post-60s generations, but we are still left with a "tribal love-rock" experience that can communicate as a musical event between the generations, and even if it is far from revolutionary, it is also far from unimportant.
It seems that this is another step in the post/modern transition, ambiguous to be sure, toward secular musics as generalized soundtracks for American experience, including as soundtracks for American spirituality. I remember the late 1970s, so I did feel some lived memory of contours of the characters on stage, but I felt even more affinity with the 30somethings (especially) and 20somethings on stage who were energetically exploring and attemping to play those 1960s characters with which my generation will always have to deal, for better and for worse. There, I realized, is a dynamic that feels familiar.
Theologian Jeff Astley, in his book Ordinary Theology, argues that one characteristic of what is "salvific" in people's everyday theology is that it feels significant to them, that it makes a kind of emotional-autobiographical sense. If significance is indeed salvific, "Hair" may yet have something to offer, insofar as it re-narrates an era for those who lived through it, and still can give a kind of rockish inspiration for those who did not.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
(Cross-posted to Rock and Theology)