Theatre yesterday and today



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Try as I do with these columns to divert from the troubling headlines we are forced to confront upon waking up every morning, I felt compelled today to write about something with a connection to Broadway, but really about something else entirely.

This past weekend marked the anniversary of an event, that upon closer inspection, offers some eerie parallels to what's going on today. The year was 1969, and the war in Vietnam was literally tearing the country apart. In our present day, ever since last November's election, it's possible that Americans are even more divided than they were back then. These are challenging times, with everyone's heels dug in over who is right and who is left.

Protestors burning draft cards on Fifth Avenue at 81st Street (1969).

On October 15, 1969, the date was set aside for "Vietnam Moratorium Day," spearheaded by antiwar activists from the worlds of politics and the arts. A group of the more liberal members of the Broadway theatre decided it was time to take a stand. Leading the cause, was Harold Prince (then as now), one of the most respected in the community. Canceling that night's performance of his long-running Fiddler on the Roof was both brave and controversial. Others agreed with Prince's stance; others did not. His arch-rival, David Merrick, threatened Woody Allen, the star and author of the hit comedy Play It Again, Sam, who had told Merrick he wouldn't go on in protest. In typical fashion, Merrick called him out in the press, saying he was in breach of his contract. But with Merrick, it was always a toss-up whether his attention-getting ploys were out of a genuine conviction, or out of a chance at extra publicity.

With college students being among the most participatory, tens of thousands refused to go to school throughout the city and on Long Island, both at the college level, as well as Junior High and High school. At twelve-years-old, even though I was still in elementary school, my parents gave me permission to take the day off and participate in protests, alongside my sixteen-year-old-brother, who was facing whether or not he would be drafted in two years.

Mayor John V. Lindsay had declared October 15th a day of mourning in New York City and gave a rousing speech in Bryant Park at the end of a parade begun at the United Nations (where the cast of Hair entertained a crowd estimated at 3,000). Lindsay—a Republican—was in a tight race for reelection at the time and was hoping to solidify his liberal credentials in left-leaning New York. It's hard to imagine today, but once upon a time there was such a thing as a "liberal Republican." In the 1960s and '70s, it was not uncommon for politicians like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits to win the nominations of their party as Republicans, then run with the full support and endorsement of the Liberal Party for Governor and Senator, respectively. On Moratorium Day, Republican Lindsay shared the speaking platform with, among others, Democratic Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, Congress's most committed opponent to the war. Three weeks later, Lindsay managed the rare feat of winning reelection not on the Republican ticket, but by voters checking the mark next to the Liberal line. In fact, he had been refused the nomination for reelection by Republican voters in the primary, who had gone with a more conservative candidate.

It also just so happened that Game four of the World Series was going on in Flushing, Queens that day. "The Amazing Mets" versus the Baltimore Orioles was a huge event, as the Mets (the worst team in all of baseball since their 1962 debut) had been in last place only weeks before the end of the regulation season, and had now, somehow managed secure a spot in the World Series. But prior to the start of the game, a political hornet’s nest broke loose when sides were taken over whether or not to raise the flag. Sound familiar to what's going on every Sunday right now?

According to the New York Times, "The Mayor had directed that the flags on all city properties be flown at half-staff. Shea Stadium is owned by the city. But just before the ceremony, the military color guard and 224 wounded Vietnam war veterans announced they would not participate unless the flag was flown full-staff." The controversy ended with the Commissioner of Baseball ordering the flag to fly at full-staff. The Mets went on to win that game in the tenth inning, 2–1, taking the lead in the series 3–1. The following afternoon, they finished Baltimore off to win the World Series. It was such a far-fetched achievement, many of us believed that peace in Vietnam might not be impossible either.

But back on Broadway, it was a surprise when the rock musical Hair chose not to shut down that night. Instead, a decision was voted upon by the cast that allowed for donating that evening's ticket proceeds to a charity of their own choosing. Off-Broadway canceled shows left and right, and a few national tours, traveling through far less-liberal cites that New York, got in on the action. In Dallas, Texas, the star of Cabaret, Joel Grey, refused to go on, personally taking out a newspaper ad to explain his absence. I couldn't locate the ad, but I did find these in the New York Times:

* Note the asterisk in the ad and the mention of 38,900 dead. This was October, 1969. By the time the war officially ended in April, 1975, that number had risen to more than 58,000.

Estimates of crowd size are always tough to get right—just ask our current President (on second thought, don’t). But photos of the event taken indicated that there were probably as many as 125,000 who gathered that day. Post- Bryant Park, it was reported that a crowd of 8,000 peacefully moved up the street eight blocks to St. Patrick's Cathedral, holding candles and singing antiwar songs.

It wasn't all so peaceful. The Patrolman's Benevolent Association overrode the Mayor's orders for flags to be flown at half-staff, instructing policemen not to do so. When a group of anti-antiwar protestors (many of them construction workers in hard hats) gathered on Wall Street, they successfully intimidated those gathered with their own signs and shouted slogans. Policeman did nothing to stop them.

Anti-antiwar protestors marched that day as well.

Not to end on the worst note possible, but I was stunned in my research to read about a pair of New Jersey high school students who took their own lives in protest over the war on that Moratorium Day. They were found dead in a locked car with two dozen suicide notes scattered about. One was the president of the debate society; the other was a cheerleader. When their notes were later read to the press by the county medical examiner, it was revealed what drove them to such extremes: "They felt that by taking their own lives, people who lived after them would appreciate their own lives."

Offering his own take on their protest, he speculated even further: "They were somehow trying to prove that life is wonderful and meaningful—and they took their own lives to prove it."

In these lackadaisical, even apathetic, times, it's difficult to imagine that kind of commitment, as wrong-headed as it may have been. The 2016 presidential election had the lowest voter turn out in twenty years. Of the eligible voting population, 92,671,979 (40 percent) did not vote. That's over 90 million who chose to stay home, or may have been turned away illegally at the polls.

If these current numbers continue, then not only will the center not hold, it will disintegrate. Let's hope, to echo a song from the sixties, "The times they are a-changin'."