by Carole Di Tosti
In ’68: A New American Musical part of the 15th annual New York Musical Festival, Jamie Leo (Book and Lyrics) and Paul Leschen (Music) focus on one explosive week of fractious political history which they assert rooted the current political and social divide that seethes one-half century later. Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention was the land mine that tore apart the city, the party and the nation. The splintering of the party and shattering of Cold War philosophies that sustained the legitimacy of our involvement in Viet Nam fostered the opportunity for conservative Republicanism to gain an entrenched foothold in our nation’s democracy.
That evolutionary time did lead to amazing transformations in domestic social policies. These have benefited subsequent generations to reveal that even status quo political elements can change. It also proved that “conservative” elements will seize any opportunity, especially the weakness of the opposition party, to attempt to oppress the disparate voices of democracy. With such oppression social groups are left behind. However, the entire culture suffers. This concept whispers throughout this energetic musical whose songs underscore the importance of allowing divergent voices to inspire us today.
Leo’s and Leschen’s decision to examine the present through the lens of the past alights on reviewing the perspectives of those representative archetypes then present in Chicago. They witnessed the six days of rioting by protestors. They experienced or effected Mayor Richard Daley’s brutal tactics to maintain order.
Director Joey Murray uses projections of news headlines to familiarize us with background events. Some include these: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are assassinated and riots in the inner cities foment. The Viet Nam War casualty list grows. Democratic candidates come out against the war (McCarthy, McGovern) and anti-war protests grow and dovetail with the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, Hubert Humphrey is deemed the mainstream, electable Democratic candidate.
To understand what is happening, Librarian Charlene (a fine portrayal by Mary Callanan) interviews various individuals who discuss their views and experiences. She notes in the opening song, “The Trouble with History” that any conclusions she may reach will be uncomfortable; history is elusive. With the help of assistant Gary (Jeremy Konopka intrigues us as he reveals his character’s conflicts) Charlene tapes. The events of the week unfold elucidating the diverse interest groups (Humphrey delegates, protestors, immigrant hotel workers, Yippies, a Viet Nam vet, a Vietnamese woman, a police lieutenant) and we get to understand their personal feelings through song and dialogue.
Some of the songs are more powerfully rendered in lyrics and music than others. In the first segment, i.e. “POWER-LESS” (sung by Uton Evan Onyejekwe) and “Where Are You From” (Ensemble) are standouts after Charlene’s opening number. Overall, the second segment is the most dynamic because the conflicts between and among the protagonists develop. We understand how the Viet Nam War and the riots during that week impact and change lives forever. Particularly notable for their presentations by the actors and the inherent and memorable lyrics and musicality are the songs, “Chickens” (sung by Delphi Borich), ‘Just Passing Through,” (Jalynn Steele) and the poignant “The Lucky Ones” (Joe Joseph).
The arc of events during convention week stuns us. Leo and Leschen provide numerous details as they explore the lives of Charlene, Gary and Lt. Stubig (a terse, directed portrayal by Bob Gaynor). We are reminded that generational differences divide youth from parents with few resolutions; hence Gary never reveals where Lt. Stubig’s runaway daughter is in “What Remains.” Abbie Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin and the Yippies nominate presidential candidate Pigasus (the live pig was confiscated after they were arrested) a street theatre protest in the park outside the convention which is humorously showcased in the song “Festival of Life.”
Then events crescendo into violence and bloodshed. The disastrous rioting in the streets is mirrored in the convention halls. Delegates push, shove, struggle with each other. National TV audiences see Daley’s corrupt political machine, his directives to the police who severely beat and gas the demonstrators, newsmen and assisting doctors. There are 12,000 officers, 15,000 National Guard.
Public opinion morphs and the divide deepens. We identify with the song “Big Ol’ Lonely Club” as Leo and Leschen stir us to consider today’s political landscape.
Kudos go to the musicians and artistic team’s excellent work which make this production a success.
The last performance is 29 July, 5 pm at The Acorn Theatre where the NYMF continues until 5 August. Tickets at: 212-352-3101 or online at http://www.nymf.org/