NOTE: This is the first part of a longer articles that also reviews another play.
I was made seriously uncomfortable in the theater twice last week, both times by a naive strain of what I suppose we've got to call triumphalism. That is to say, I was twice asked to believe in much too easy a victory.
The first occurred in yet another rock musical, this one called rainbow. The show at the downtown Orpheum has 42 songs (many of them good ones), no real book though a book is advertised, and a second-act sequence that, I am sorry to say, curdled my blood.
It came about this way. The first half of the entertainment began with the levitation of an American soldier freshly killed in Vietnam, while all about his flag draped bier a group of non-mourners in curiously old-fashioned psychedelic robes, eye spangles, red hands and daubed foreheads sand him a welcome to their Radio Rainbeam show.
The raised soldier was where it's at, now, free at last to join the joyous dead in an unending stream of lively hoe-downs, banjo struts, old ragtime figures given fresh energy by a harder beat, and even a few snatches of lyric conversation that seemed to rejuvenate him. Somewhere in this light-hearted rainbow afterworld, with Jesus spread against the wall beneath a crown of twinkling lights among the thorns, he had met his own mother on the way to the bathroom. The meeting was propitious. "We had been strangers," he sang, "Now we are more than enemies/Now we're more than melody." I can't say that I know precisely what this last means, but it was plane that it made him happy.
James Rado's songs, as I say, were enlivening, whatever their derivation ("Give Your Heart To Jesus" was close to straight gospel, "Oh, Oh, Oh" could have been coined as the Twenties were turning into the Thirties) and their sheer high spirits were quite enough to carry anyone to the first-act curtain, especially as an animated company coiled themselves jubilantly around corkscrew ramps that seemed to envelope the playhouse. Mr. Rado's lyrics weren't helping quite as much ("I got a song to sing to you/I got a song to sing to you/I got a song to sing to you/It's such a happy song.") and the occasional jokes the composer has concocted with the help of brother Ted weren't helping at all (learning that the soldier's father had been a butcher, a homosexual asked, "Is he more butch than you are?"). But no matter. The show jumps.
Just before intermission, as a gesture towards "book" and a possible point to come, the group decided to take the gala they had been romping through down to Washington D.C., where, if they could present it for the President, the Vietnam war would surely be brought to an end. Would you believe that that's exactly what happened in the second act?
The President - unidentified by appearance or by name, but surrounded by hard-hats wearing ties the size of mainsails - no sooner met the youthful congregation than he was down on his knees, accepting from them a kind of baptismal rite, requesting forgiveness for deeds past. In a voice quavering with penitent good will he solemnly, liquidly announced, "I declare this war at an end."
It just so happens that Rainbow's opening night coincided with the resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam after the breaking-off of the peace talks, and the moment couldn't have queasier. How young are these generally appealing children that they can imagine 42 songs - and 42 songs of the counterculture at that - achieving an objective that far more than 42 protests of various political and religious kinds have never achieved?
The gaucherie was suddenly appalling, no longer innocent but terrible self deception, suggesting an isolation from reality that substituted wishful-thinking for genuine strength. Is the counterculture a cocoon from which only pipe-dreams are ever to emerge? I spent the next 20 minutes trying to shake every kind of dismay from my head. It didn't help the second act.
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