The Age of Disco Gets a Curtain Call

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When the musical "Chicago" opened in 1975, critics dubbed it dark and cynical: The antiheroine, a married Roxie Hart, kills her boyfriend, then manipulates the press and legal system to gain her freedom.

Two decades later, Roxie and crew are back. A trimmed-down revival of the show won six 1997 Tony Awards, and at least two productions are touring southern California this summer alone.

But in this post-O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, and Menendez brothers era, Roxie's murderous and manipulative antics have lost much of their original shock value.

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This time around, the show almost plays as quaint.

In fact, the show itself is best understood when seen in the context of what could be described as an avalanche of 1970s nostalgia.

Onstage, revivals of "Annie" and "Pippin" have been playing to sellout crowds. On the radio, a rash of all-'70s music formats has swept major-market FM stations. Television has responded with the advent of cable channels like the Game Show network, Nickelodeon, and TV Land that broadcast '70s reruns as part of their regular lineups (see related story, next page). And the film industry has been cashing in on the craze, rereleasing '70s classics like "Grease," "Star Wars," "The Brady Bunch," and "The Godfather." There's all this plus the crowds of discoing teenagers trotting around in bell-bottoms and polyester.

What's the attraction of an era that witnessed such turbulence as Watergate, Vietnam, and the hostages in Iran? Simplicity, says Arthur Danto, a philosophy professor at Columbia University in New York - or rather, the perception of it. "After all, there was no cable TV, no MTV, no laser printers, modems, frequent-flier miles, no punk rock, no hip-hop, no cloning, and no AIDS," he explains. Despite the tumultuous historical events taking place, compared with today, the time seems much simpler, he says.

Two decades is just about the right amount of time to achieve the distance required for a sort of ironic superiority (indeed, critics noted that the charm of the two Brady Bunch movies was in placing the ingenuous '70s family in the midst of a nasty '90s town), while at the same time being close enough for us to relate, muses Mr. Danto. That's because "we're always divided between liking the past to feel strange and liking it to be familiar," he says.

Beyond that, suggests Richard Kirkendall, a communications professor and historian at the University of Houston, every generation experiences the middle-aged nostalgia for its own youth. "And now we have the baby boomers hitting their '40s," and their college days look a lot better than the mortgages and complicated lives they lead today.

A quick review of the top-selling items over at Warp Factor 10 Collectibles in Northridge, Calif., confirms the trend. "All those '70s toys are hot," says owner Jeff Bershin, observing that all the people who saw "Star Wars" the first time around are snatching up anything to do with the film - both the 20-year-old collectible figures as well as the paraphernalia produced for the rerelease. "The '70s are in. It's all those boomers coming of age."

Historically, Mr. Kirkendall notes, the '70s couldn't be a less heroic time. A Navy veteran of the early 1950s, he says there are many periods in history more worthy of remembering. "The '50s and '60s saw the flowering of the civil rights movement, and there were genuine heroes during World War II."

But nostalgia has little to do with a cleareyed look at history and everything to do with a natural tendency to romanticize the past, the historian acknowledges. Still, based strictly on the events of the decade, "if I were to pick a period to memorialize, I doubt it would be the '70s."

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