My friend Jim wrote recently about his experience going to see the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Hair (which I saw last April). Jim has a very interesting critique of how the revival stages the final song of the show, “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In,” which you should definitely read, and so I’ve had the song floating around in the back of my mind for the past few days.
I realized a while ago that it was pretty impossible to categorically rule on what my “favorite” things are (my Facebook profile notwithstanding), but if there were ever a contest for Emily’s Favorite Song, “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In” would be a strong contender. I think it’s because it represents to me what is so intoxicating about the hippies and their version of counterculture: they’re one of the very few countercultural movements I can think of which, in addition to acting against the dominant society, offers up its own alternative portrait of what dominant society could be (it may not have been a truly viable alternative, but it was an alternative all the same). “Let the Sunshine In” is a prayer born out of anguish and betrayal, out of the built-up anger of a generation sent to die in a needless war and denied any institutional voice. The hippies and other disaffected late-’60s youth made their own avenues for communication, their own ways to speak out. And while I’ve written many, many words about the degree to which Hair actually reflects the counterculture it commercialized, that final plea the cast makes to the audience is an echo of an alienated counterculture’s voice, getting through.
But the late-’60s youth counterculture is such a tragic entity because its various visions were never realized. Every time I listen to “Let the Sunshine In” I think—in a totally secular sense, mind you—about how prayers go unanswered, and after a while we just stop asking. I think about how the world I’m living in is full of insanity, equal to that which produced the war and the generation gap which drive Hair and the culture it reflects. I admire the resolve of fictional characters from a halcyon time when someone thought it was still worth asking, and I wonder why, today just as 40 years ago, we need actors in a Broadway musical to say, “Let the Sunshine In”—is it just such a ridiculous premise to broach in any more “serious” setting? (1975’s Government in the Sunshine Act notwithstanding. Joke. See what I mean?)
Because I’m from San Diego, getting anywhere in my adolescence necessitated driving. My mom and I have spent a lot of time in the car, and we’ve spent a lot of it listening and singing to music, and talking politics. I have vivid memories of the times my mom and I have listened to the Hair soundtrack (original Broadway cast) and sung along, and the times my mom has used the songs to launch into one of her nostalgia trips, longing for a better, more optimistic time that even she knows may not have really existed. I have equally vivid memories of our discussions of all-too-current events: in the aftermath of 9/11, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, during presidential and midterm campaign seasons alike for the past ten years. I cannot tell you how often my mom has drummed the steering wheel in anger and I’ve stared flatly out the window as one or the other of us intoned, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” And then maybe one of us would put Hair in the CD player, and skip to track 32, and sing, “Let the sunshine in!”—willing for it to be true.
But Generation Y’s answer to some hippies who may never really have existed except in the minds of a couple out-of-work actors who decided to write a book and lyrics based on their times as they saw them is that the clouds don’t part. The sunshine doesn’t shine in. All the prayers in the world won’t cause our country to live up to its ideals of justice and fairness and freedom; all the cries and pleas and all the singing won’t (to quote Ginsberg) “end the human war.”
It doesn’t seem inappropriate to appropriate Christian terminology to express how I feel about the never-realized ideal of the country I call home. I’m returning to the US in two days, and I guess you could say I’m having a crisis of faith. You can shout “Let the sunshine in!” from the rooftops, but who will hear you? Love, peace, and justice don’t make a good headline.
At the time of the inauguration in January, when Pete Seeger sang all the verses to “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I believed that I could see the sun shining at last. But while I do still cry when I watch that video, and I do still cry when I hear the last song in Hair, it’s more because of my present feeling: no matter whom we put in office, the winds of change are never really more than a rhetorical device. They aren’t strong enough to blow the clouds away and let the sunshine in.