Before the musical “’68” begins, newspaper headlines are projected on the stage, marking some of the tumultuous events in the year 1968 — the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, campus protests and city riots across the United States….and the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
But, despite the title of their musical, which is an entry in the New York Musical Theater festival, librettist/lyricist Jamie Leo and composer Paul Leschen focus on just one of those events; the NYMF program bills “’68” as “inspired by the volatile events of the 1968 Democratic Convention and their place in history and our future.”
It’s a smart choice and in itself an ambitious undertaking. What happened in Chicago, from the contentious politicking inside the International Amphitheatre to the demonstrations and police violence in the parks and streets outside, is in many ways emblematic of that chaotic era.
There are moments in “’68” that get at the era in a winning way. One of the most memorable is the song “Power-less” in which Lonnie (portrayed by Uton Onyejekwe), a black man dressed in the black militant uniform of the day – black leather jacket and black beret – explains why he is supporting Hubert Humphrey for president. Even those who don’t get the humor in the incongruity will appreciate the stirring Soul sound of the song. Indeed, Paul Leschen’s score is largely a pleasing pastiche of a range of 60’s era music, especially some mighty pretty folk-rock songs.
There is much to like in “’68,” thanks in part to a production directed by Joey Murray that is competently staged, well-acted and well-sung. But as in 1968, so in “’68” (to paraphrase Joan Didion’s quote from a Yeats poem): The center does not hold.
The musical is framed as an oral history project conducted by a librarian named Charlene (portrayed by Broadway veteran Mary Callanan) who has hired an assistant named Gary (Jeremy Konapka) to help her conduct interviews with the various participants. So we see an extended scene from The Festival of Light, a vaudeville-like protest that was held in Chicago’s Grant Park by the Yippies, who nominated a pig named Pigasus for president; we also see “Hippie Sunny” (Delphi Borich) speaking into Charlene’s tape recorder commenting on the event. We see a scene of a police superintendent talking about crowd control with a group of officers, and later, Charlene and Gary’s interviews with Lt. Stubig (Bob Gaynor), a police officer who cracked heads at the festival. We see Rebeca (Nicole Paloma Sarro), working the phones as a Humphrey campaign aide and talking (and singing) with her colleague Sandy (Maggie Hollinbeck), and then watch while she explains to Charlene how her mother was a political organizer in Mexico who’s become a maid in the Chicago Hilton, and, later, she answers what impact the convention has had on her life. (“It made me sad.”)
Charlene and Gary occasionally debate what they should include and what they should leave out, which fits in with a main theme of the musical – “The Trouble with History” (which is the title of the first song.) The working philosophy behind the musical is that the everyday people who participated were just as important as the “big name authors and party bosses….
You can bet they’ll have their word
But what about the rest of us?
What’s the chances we’ll get heard?
Letting “the rest of us” have their say is hard to argue with in theory, but “’68” spends too much time on what feel like extraneous matters. There’s a song about how run-down the hotel where the conventioneers stayed; a song by Gary and Lt. Stubig about the police officer’s daughter, who is also Gary’s ex-girlfriend, leaving them both to live in a commune in Wisconsin; and an out-of-left-field scene and song from Charlene recalling Chicago in 1948 and how her father was punished for his activism. The latter two songs seem part of an effort to flesh out Gary and Charlene as characters; the 40’s song, “Price Tag,” has a wonderful Andrews Sisters vibe.
Meanwhile, though, there’s little about what happened at the convention itself, as if that were irrelevant. There’s no effort to dramatize or even mention, for example, the battle for Kennedy delegates between Senator Eugene McCarthy and Senator George McGovern in the wake of RFK’s assassination. There’s little (except for Lonnie’s song) about the moving irony of the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, who was an outspoken liberal during his entire Senatorial career, yet as Johnson’s vice president, was now viewed as LBJ’s puppet and the war monger candidate. There is nothing about the fight by civil rights activists to seat a more integrated slate of delegates from five states of the South. There is nothing about the impact on the Democratic Party of the political conflicts. The show doesn’t even take advantage of the drama and suspense inherent in any vote. Nobody would want gavel-to-gavel coverage – and you can’t include everything in a 95-minute musical — but if we’re promised a musical “inspired by” the Chicago convention, shouldn’t we get some orienting sense of the convention itself, rather than just the disorienting turmoil that surrounded it?
The creative team might even have gotten away with this odd omission, if “’68” were less diffuse. It’s as if, like the oral historians Charlene and Gary, they argued with one another about what mattered, and then couldn’t decide.
’68 is on stage at Theatre Row as part of the New York Musical Festival. Remaining performances, through Sunday, July 29 at 5 pm.