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San Diego gets its fair share of Broadway – from local productions at the Starlight Theater in Balboa Park to the Lambs Players on Coronado, and of course the big touring productions that land at the Civic Auditorium compliments of Broadway San Diego. This summer brought us a surprisingly relevant “Fiddler on the Roof” (related article here) and another visit from the witches of Oz in “Wicked”.

In addition to hosting national tours, San Diego has a nice reciprocal relationship with the Great White Way, sending a good chunk of new shows back East to meet their fate, including the hits “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Old Globe) and “Jersey Boys” (La Jolla Playhouse). The new Playhouse production “Memphis,” which was inaugurated in San Diego last season opens in New York this fall.

Still, there’s nothing like seeing a musical on Broadway with the energy of packed sidewalks minutes before curtain, the bright marquees that line the streets around Times Square, screaming enthusiastic reviews and boasting of Tony wins. The intimate theaters offer an experience completely unlike the cavernous Civic and the legendary performers remind us what star power truly is (you haven’t seen “Gypsy” until you’ve seen it with Patti LuPone).

Over Labor Day, I found myself in New York for a few days of eating, catching up with friends, and not a small amount of debauchery (which the city simply seems to inspire). True to form, I packed my schedule with as much theater-going as possible.

Friday night brought me to an old steamboat in the Hudson River, participating in a guided production of “The Confidence Man,” produced by the Woodshed Collective, a series of vignettes that piece together a tale of trust, faith, and deception. New York had hit a streak of perfect weather and I got an important lesson in looking beyond Broadway for stimulating (and free) theatrical experiences.

Sunday morning I hopped out of bed (relatively) early to wait in line at the TKTS discount ticket booth to score a ticket to “Next to Normal”, the new musical about depression and bipolar disorder that has been making waves since it’s debut. A refreshingly original production (one of the very few currently on Broadway that is not a revival or an adaptation of a book or movie), “Next to Normal” is a dark, devastating, and brilliant story about a family desperately trying to stay together and stay sane. Happy, it is not.

What struck me about the show was how surprisingly effective the medium of musical theater was for the topic. Psychotherapy, attempted suicide, ethics in modern psychiatry, electro-shock therapy: these are not the typical source material for a musical. Yet the fact that the Tony-award winning rock score dramatically and profoundly sheds light and clarity on these issues suggests both that musical theater is a serious and seriously adaptable art form, and that it is capable of addressing weighty contemporary social issues with insight and compassion.

Now to jump back to Saturday night and nearly four decades earlier…

My buddies and I scurried to the Hirschfield Theater to witness the acclaimed production of “HAIR” (Tony Award Best Musical Revival). Seeing the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” this summer in San Diego, I wrote about being struck by its relevance to the debate on same-sex marriage and watching “HAIR” conjured similar thoughts about other contemporary issues.

Almost forty years to the day of the Woodstock Festival, the spirit of love, the quest for enlightenment, and the reliance on a wide array of drugs to enhance the journey is firmly rooted in the American narrative. The long hair, the tie-dye, even the style of it all has secured a spot in the nation’s nostalgia.

The look and sound of the era has long been commercialized. To see that culture come alive again on stage feels almost a bit clichéd.

Yet as a country currently engaged in a controversial war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the chants for peace and freedom feel relevant and familiar even if the context is no longer the same. The recent anti-war movement has lost much of its volume and urgency with the change in administration, but the echoes reverberate nightly on 45th Street at the Hirschfield.

The story of Claude Bukowski, an idealistic young man torn between a sense of justice and a sense of duty, is a story being contemplated every day by the many service members and veterans of our current military engagements. That many of us do NOT engage in such internal debate is equally telling of our times and this particular war.

The score of “HAIR” is a collection of catchy vignettes, mini-character studies, and odes to the joys of sex and hallucinogens, most lasting only a minute or two. On their own, they don’t much contribute to or further the plot. But together they emerge as the collective voice of a community, a tribe of dreamers who struggle to find a balance between changing the world in which they live and ignoring it entirely to search for personal pleasure and meaning in an alternative world of their own.

In a country that often feels so divided, that type of broad unity feels a bit foreign, something perhaps unattainable these days, despite the hope that emerged for many from last year’s presidential election.

The dawning of a new age of Aquarious? Who knows? But “HAIR” has returned to Broadway to offer a look at a time when people made political statements by simply living outside the norms of society, where the length of ones hair suggested powerful social sentiments. Reflecting on hair and “HAIR” raises the question: Do we still live our personal politics today?

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