THE CIVIL WAR
at the Vic Theatre
Some of those who graduated from high school in 1968 just attended their 20th class reunion. They participated in the obligatory reunion rituals--catching up on classmates' lives, reminiscing about tough teachers and outrageous pranks, promising to stay in touch. But they also recognized that in one way at least the class of '68 was unique: they were probably the last members of the Happy Days generation. When they stepped out of high school they stepped into a maelstrom of war, racial unrest, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, ethical ambiguity, and religious doubt.
Some survivors of the class of '68 didn't pay much attention to that year's big events at the time. They just went on doing their homework and going to parties. It takes an occasion such as a high school reunion to bring people face to face with their past, so they can see what time has done to them.
The Civil War serves a similar function. This rock cantata was written in 1968 by William Russo, who wanted to contrast the turmoil wracking the nation then with the war that almost split it a century earlier. The look and the sound of the show are unmistakably 60s. Slides flashed in frenzied succession on a screen behind the performers conjure the anxiety of the day. There are images of rice paddies and wounded soldiers, bombing raids, the dying Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy with his children, Martin Luther King in jail, billy clubs, tear gas, blood, corpses. Interspersed are photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, Gettysburg, cannons, the Confederate and American flags. Multimedia collages of slides and film were very popular in the 60s, but what really gives away the date of this show is the psychedelic soap bubble sliding over the screen behind these images.
Robert Boldt's collated images were meant to serve as a backdrop for the music, but the vintage 60s music has now slipped into the background. There's a folksy number that brings to mind the lilting soprano of Judy Collins; the driving guitar riffs are reminiscent of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix; and the opening number borrows brazenly from "I Am the Walrus" by the Beatles.
I don't know how audiences reacted to this 20 years ago, but the effect today is similar to the effect of a high school reunion--it causes us to look back with nostalgia, but with a touch of embarrassment, too. Were we really so simple and ignorant?
The lyrics are drawn mostly from Songs After Lincoln, a collection of poems by historian Paul Horgan that were based on the Civil War. Perhaps this juxtaposition of the Civil War with the civil strife of the 60s was startling in 1968, but today it seems heavy-handed and terribly earnest. "Father Abraham and the Recruiting Officer," for example, is a conversation between a father and his son who has been killed in battle:
Johnny did you come on home?
Oh, yes father.
The government, they brought me home,
And laid me underneath the loam,
And here I lie, no more to roam
Oh, yes father.
And "The Dreaming Slave" may have seemed poignant at the height of the civil-rights struggle, but it seems mawkish today:
A man owns me
And dirt to dirt
He sets me to my task
He guards my flesh
For he bought it dear
And he gives me all I ask.
While lead singer Valarie Tekosky belts out these lyrics with plenty of passion--and volume--many of the words are swallowed up by the music, which, in true 60s fashion, frequently crosses the pain threshold. If the production were quieter, with less distracting choreography and lighting effects, I suspect it might gain power. But this is a commercial production. Ron Dorfman decided to produce the show after seeing a revival last season at Columbia College, where Russo is director of the Contemporary American Music Program. The show is being staged at the Vic Theatre, which also houses ClubLand, and audience members can hang around at no extra charge after the show and dance. Given the venue, it probably made sense for director Albert Williams to add some additional lighting effects and make use of the sophisticated sound equipment at his disposal.
But I think the show would benefit from a "less is more" approach. As Williams points out in his director's notes, the simplicity of the cantata form is the key to The Civil War's effectiveness. With material this potent, understatement is always a good idea. Otherwise it seems like exaggeration, and the whole point of the show is that this stuff really happened.