Culture

1968 and All That

From ’68, with Mary Callanan (Charlene) seated (Michael Kushner)
A new musical celebrates the famous, or infamous, Democratic convention in Chicago

Editor’s Note: The below is derived from a piece about two theatrical productions, including ’68 (of course), in the current issue of National Review.

The arts world loves an anniversary, and so does the world in general. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Big Mac. More seriously, it is the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, and subsequent Soviet invasion.

It is also the 50th anniversary of the Chicago convention — the Democrats’ convention in Chicago in 1968. That was a famously tumultuous affair.

And there is a new musical called, straightforwardly enough, “’68.” It was premiered at the New York Musical Festival last month. Anniversary or no anniversary, the Chicago convention is a good idea for the musical theater.

Before the curtain rises on ’68, the audience sees newspaper headlines — about the assassination of Martin Luther King; the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy; the war in Vietnam; rioting and looting in American cities . . . This supplies the atmosphere.

Here is a lyric from a song: “Vietnam is going to hell, / Things at home are not going well. / Between Bobby and Dr. King, / It’s been such an awful spring.”

True.

Jamie Leo and Paul Leschen are the creators of the show. Leo is responsible for the concept, book, and lyrics, Leschen for the music. Our program for the evening quoted Leo as follows: “I stayed very close to my heart, to social activism as I understand it.”

Politically, ’68 takes a progressive point of view, a Howard Zinn point of view. Leo says that the show is meant to be “a narrative, a eulogy, and a celebration of struggle.”

The hook of the show, so to speak, is that participants in the convention — especially the protesters outside the convention — are recording their experiences for posterity. They are making an oral history (shortly after the convention itself, it seems). Charlene, a research librarian, is in charge. Scenes from the convention are reenacted.

RFK, just two and a half months dead, is something of a holy figure. “I don’t know if Kennedy’s idealism ever stood a chance,” says a character. The convention’s nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey, is definitely not a holy figure. He’s more like a figure of sport. As the protesters see it — and the protesters are the good guys in this show — HHH is all too establishment.

He is mocked in a song called “Minnesota Nice.” So are his supporters.

Stokely Carmichael, Walter Cronkite, Abbie Hoffman — the names go by. A future president, Ronald Reagan, gets a mention. “Ronald Reagan supports Hubert!” someone says. Really? That would have been news to Reagan, Humphrey, and everyone else.

Charlene remarks that no one will remember Reagan in 20 years, because he’s just a B-movie actor. This gets a laugh from the audience. But in 1968, remember, Reagan was governor of California — and already a presidential contender. Indeed, he got some votes at the Republican convention, which preceded the Democratic.

In another scene, someone imagines seeing another governor, another Republican: “Izzat Governor Romney? Former president of General Motors? No, you would never be seen outside of a putting green.”

Governor George Romney of Michigan had been president of AMC — American Motors Corporation — not GM. (Maybe “General Motors” sounded more sinister? Or simply more familiar?) It’s true, however, that Romney liked golf.

Okay, here’s a linguistic cavil: Charlene asks someone, “Did the convention impact your life?” I don’t think “impact” was used as a verb back then, except for teeth. This misfortune hit us later on, as I remember.

The references to Richard Nixon are right. Mocking him, a conventioneer says, “‘Nixon’s the One!’ ‘Sock it to me!’ Hahahaha.” Yes, “Nixon’s the One!” was that candidate’s slogan; and the candidate had indeed said “Sock it to me!” on Laugh-In.

Laugh-In was a popular television show of the period; “Sock it to me!” was a catchphrase of the show.

But back to “Nixon’s the One!”: Do you remember what Dick Tuck, the Democratic dirty-trickster, did? At a Nixon rally, he had a heavily pregnant black woman wander around with a T-shirt reading, “Nixon’s the One!” Get it?

Ah, politics (racially tinged).

’68 is loud and raucous, like the event it memorializes and celebrates. There is a steady stream of protest and grievance. I thought of a phrase from William F. Buckley Jr., years ago: “the street theater of the Left.” Cops are called “pigs.” Everyone rants. You can kind of hear it, can’t you?

There are several storylines — about an oppressed Hispanic maid; about Charlene’s ailing father; about the missing daughter of a cop. I’m afraid I couldn’t follow that third one. At the end, the show seems to understand itself as deep. I’m not so sure about that depth. I thought of a dorm-room, pot-induced profundity.

But how about the music, which is no small thing in a musical? “Unforgettable,” said the show’s PR. Well, time will tell. The music, said Jamie Leo and Paul Leschen in a program note, is meant to “celebrate the tremendous range of musical influences blossoming in Chicago and the U.S. in the late 1960s.”

There is one song — very strange — that I thought was rather effective. It’s called “Chickens,” and it’s sung by a young Asian woman. “All the chickens in the henhouse have a name, have a name. . . . All the chickens in the henhouse are so soft, are so soft. . . . All the chickens in the henhouse are so good, are so good. . . . All the chickens in the henhouse don’t rise up, don’t rise up.”

The song is about the My Lai Massacre, apparently.

Whatever I thought of the show — or whatever you would think of it — it was very well executed, very well performed. Joey Murray did the directing. Starring as Charlene was Mary Callanan, who, among other things, can sing in tune. This is not to be taken for granted. Maggie Hollinbeck, playing more than one character, sang and acted like a pro.

I grew up in the aftermath of 1968 and all that. Also, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., which was a 1968-ish town, in part. I got sick of 1968-ishness when I was about ten, I think.

Needless to say, this musical was not for me. It was not for me in the same way that Abbie Hoffman, rock ’n’ roll (much of it), Howard Zinn, and drugs are not for me. But listen: I credit the show with sincerity — with an earnestness and even an idealism. Being in the theater was a bit like being in a political church. Not my church, mind you, but many people’s. (Actually, I have no political church, just church church — which is probably how it should be regardless.)

’68 strives for a message of mutual understanding. Of dignity, respect, and all that (excellent) jazz. To borrow another phrase from Bill Buckley, this “can hardly be gainsaid.”

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