Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Hippies on Mount Tam 1: The Musical
There were only two sunny spots on Sunday, midway in the Bay Area's Memorial Weekend. One was the top of Mount Diablo in the East Bay (seen above looming over the cloud cover)...
...and the other was the peak of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County...
...where "The Mountain Play" was celebrating its 94th year with a 40th anniversary production of the rock musical "Hair" (click here for their website).
The 4,000-seat amphitheatre sits near the peak of Mount Tam...
...and if the annual musical becomes too dull, there's a great view to the southeast which includes downtown San Francisco when it's not socked in with fog.
There was pre-show entertainment offered at eleven in the morning, including a set by "Haight & Ashbury" which turned out to be none other than Dan Hicks, accompanied by Paul Robinson, Brian Simpson and Paul Smith.
Dan Hicks and [an updated version of] the Hot Licks are still performing with some frequency around the country (click here for his nicely designed website), but Hicks started out in 1965 with a group called The Charlatans who pretty much helped to invent the original hippie scene in San Francisco and its surroundings.
Sitting directly behind us in the amphitheatre was another artistic inventor from that time who has managed to survive, Victor Moscoso (above). He's not only one of the major founding artists of the early Zap Comix, but he also designed many of the famous psychedelic posters of the 1960s for the Avalon Ballroom, Grateful Dead, and others which have ended up on museum walls. He also produced the logo art for this year's Mountain Play production of "Hair" (check out his website by clicking here to buy a signed copy of the "Hair" poster and other pieces).
Victor turned out to be the perfect companion for Sunday's trip into the time machine, partly because neither of us had ever labored under any illusions, pro or con, about the hippie scene because we both lived through it.
In fact, neither Victor nor myself particularly liked the musical when it first came out, looking upon it as crass commercialization of a young people's scene by New York theatre people, which it was.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we both turned out to be utterly charmed by The Mountain Play's production of "Hair," forty years down the road.
This was partly because it doesn't get any more authentically "Original Hippie" than the top of Mount Tamalpais, where the Harmonic Convergence took place not that many years ago just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
The book of the musical by Jerome Ragni and James Rado was always a sketchy mess, about two fairly unlikeable New York area characters, Berger and Claude, hanging out doing drugs and having sex with "their tribe" in the East Village while waiting to become cannon fodder in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the piece hasn't dated a bit in its anti-war stance, and the production wisely doesn't underline Iraq because it's not necessary. The similarities were staring the audience in the face.
Not holding up so well is the play's attitudes towards women which are fairly neanderthal, though "Easy To Be Hard" and especially "Frank Mills" are definitely mitigating tunes. The racial attitudes are also interesting, focusing mostly on black and white. My only complaint about the production, actually, is that I wish the young, energetic cast had been more Bay Area rainbow-colored and not quite so white.
The real reason to check out this production is for the great musical score by Galt MacDermot which is aging beautifully. The musical is essentially an operatic string of songs, mostly for a large chorus, and the Canadian composer is a magpie borrower of at least twenty different musical styles that somehow work together.
Most of the creators of "Hair" were destroyed by its worldwide success, but MacDermot took his wealth from the show and created a jazz band and his own small record label, Kilmarnock Records, which is still going strong (click here to get to his great website). MacDermot has recently come into another period of fame on account of having composed early, iconic "blaxploitation" film soundtracks (including "Cotton Comes to Harlem") that have been rediscovered by current rappers. He also spent much of the 1970s working on theater pieces with the Trinidad poet Derek Walcott who eventually won the Nobel Prize. MacDermot seems ripe for a major reevaluation.
The production continues for four more Sunday performances in June at 1PM and I can't recommend it highly enough, even though The Mountain Play organization did chicken out and cut the song "Sodomy" along with the traditional infamous nudity. I doubt whether either one would have caused too many lifted eyebrows in 2007, and the cast is young and sexy enough that they probably would have enjoyed it.