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>Another Phone Call from the Past

>I realized a forty-year-old dream last night when we went to see a community theater production of Hair. The Rent of its day–although far more transgressive–Hair was the Big Thing for little show-tune freaks, given even more appeal by the fact that we had to listen to the record (which was all we knew of the show, since we certainly wouldn’t be allowed to see it. Nudes!) out of earshot of our parents. I remember clandestinely (I thought) listening to my older sister’s recording and my mother overhearing “Happy Birthday Abie Baby” (“emanci-motherfuckin’-pator of the slaves”) and pitching a fit. Has High School Musical ever occasioned such perfect drama?

Growing up in Boston added allure, too, as, when the show came to town in 1970, it was promptly shut down and banned for a month until the Supreme Court allowed it to reopen. I remember faking illness to stay home from school one day because the cast was going to perform on some local TV talk show. How ironic that “America’s oldest community theater” (the Footlight Club opened in 1877) would be presenting it thirty-some years later without fuss, obscenities and (discreetly lit) nudity intact.

I didn’t get half of the sex jokes back then, and certainly didn’t recognize just how druggie it was–my exposure to illegal substances was then limited to the “awareness tablets” that a cop had brought into our junior high and lit in front of the classroom to demonstrate what marijuana smelled like so we would know when to blow the whistle on a party, I guess. Last night, at fifty-one, I had little patience with the show’s loosey-goosey free-range dialogue that was supposed to convey the inspiration of drugs and wondered how anyone could have ever heard it as meaningful or even sincere.

But to think of drugs as “mind-expanding” is even more taboo today than in 1968, as is the show’s gleeful employment of racial epithets. Forget getting banned in Boston; can it play in L.A.?

What I mostly thought last night, sentimentally and dolefully, is that now I’m the parents and, really, so is the show. I’m betting the sweet kids on stage were as bemused by the LBJ jokes they were spouting as I had been by “Sodomy.”

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Monica Edinger says:

    >I think it is more Spring Awakening what with the full frontal nudity such a big deal way back in 1968. Went with my family (liberal sorts my parents) just after we moved to New York (suburbs that is) from the midwest and I remember the excitement of the show, of Broadway, NYC, and the Carnegie Deli afterwards.

    The Public Theater(from whence it sprang) did a 40th anniversary concert (so we showing our age, Rog?) in the Park this September (only two performances gosh darn it) with the lead of Spring Awakening (Jonathan Groff) playing Claude.

  2. B. Johansen Newman says:

    >Ah, you bring back memories….

    I went to NY in 1969 on a double date to see the show. It consisted, I think, of many of the original cast members, if not all.

    I was just about 17 and VERY naive and I had led a sheltered life. At the end of end of the first act, when everyone got naked, I thought I would faint. (The same thing happened to me on the first day of life drawing class in college. Of course, by my sophomore year it was old hat, and I was telling the models to leave their clothes on so drawing would be more interesting).

    But back to Hair. It was fun and it was my first Broadway show. I loved the album and could sing along with everything.

    Did I get the sexual references? No way. But I loved the show and the era, and the album brings back many memories.

    BTW, the Three Dog Night version of Easy to be Hard is still a classic I enjoy, and for a great jazzy interpretation of more music from Hair, check out the Quincy Jones “Walking in Space” album.

  3. >My uncle Gerry Berlin was the lawyer who got the show opened again after the censors closed it down. It’s a long and very funny story and Gerry tells it with great gusto and a Boston accent underladen with his original Virginia drawl.


  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >We saw some genuinely edgy subversion last night in the unlikely context of a song recital, by the terrific Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman. For her last encore she announced she was going to sing a lullaby, and smiling as sweetly as if she were singing “Canción De Cuna Para Dormir A Un Negrito,” she gave us Tom Lehrer’s “The Old Dope Peddler.” The Jordan Hall audience didn’t know where to look.

  5. >This is in regards to a completely different thread, but I just wanted to note that 8 out of 10 of the NYTimes best illustrated books are by men. All 10 are solo projects (with no separate writer.)

  6. >Back to Hair for a second. (Disclosure: I’m the “older sister” he refers to.) Of course I remember the show, not that I was ever allowed to see it – I, too, knew it from the music, all of which did indeed speak to my generation.

    But when my youngest brother called me from UMass, where they were staging it, to find out some of the “history of the Sixties,” I almost croaked of old age right then and there.

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