Aside from the complete works of the Beatles and the Motown catalogue, there is no more iconic pop music from the 1960s than the original Broadway score of
Hair, “the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” The opening lines of the show, which quickly spread from the Broadway stage throughout the world thanks to the 5th Dimension’s Top 40 radio hit version, entered the culture so quickly it’s as if we were born knowing them:
When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius!
The music of Hair was phenomenal. It was the first and last time in the rock-n-roll era that a Broadway score would take over the pop charts, yielding four hit singles and a million-selling original cast album. As theater,
Hair was a different story – not a structured narrative but a “happening,” a naďve, amorphous mess of a show that dazzled its way into the audience’s hearts through the sheer charisma of the performers (including two of the creators, Gerome Ragni and James Rado), the shock of seeing beautiful young multicolored bodies briefly naked onstage, and the novelty of seeing youth culture and sociopolitical engagement reflected back from conservative bastion of the Broadway stage.
Now Hair has been revived in a free production in Central Park by the Public Theater, the same institution that first staged the musical 41 years ago in its pre-Broadway incarnation. The score is still fantastically tuneful. And the audience has a ball – what’s not to love about a free show full of songs you probably already know by heart? But the performers are not especially charismatic; in the leading roles, Will Swenson as Berger seems to enjoy himself running around in a leather fringed loincloth flashing his beefy butt, but Jonathan Groff, who was scorching as the male star of
Spring Awakening, seems bland and a little embarrassed as his sidekick Claude. The spectacle of naked people onstage has long since lost its novelty, if not its power to titillate. And despite the superficial parallels between one unpopular war and another, the hippie-era ethos of “tune in, turn on, drop out” doesn’t speak to the social issues that face young people in 2008. Which leaves
Hair as a theater piece just a big amorphous mess.
Diane Paulus, the director of this revival, made her name in New York with
The Donkey Show, a sophomoric audience-participation spectacle staged in a nightclub that mashed Shakespeare’s
Midsummer Night’s Dream together with ‘70s disco music. She’s also worked a lot in opera, and she was just appointed the new artistic director of the American Repertory Theater company at Harvard University. But for
Hair she has reverted to Donkey Show’s lowest-common-denominator style of theater. However watered-down, commercialized, and anti-intellectual the original version of
Hair was, to some degree it represented the rebellion of people in their late teens and twenties, whose hair styles and exotic, colorful, handmade clothing registered as a kind of social protest against the straight-laced conformity of mainstream culture. And it lived out a body-positive attitude that thumbed its nose at traditional sex roles. Berger and Claude-- the roles originally played by Ragni, who died of cancer in 1991, and Rado -- share a lot of affectionate physical contact, and the character of Woof declares that he’s not homosexual but he would happily spend all night making love with Mick Jagger. (Just reading about that character on the back cover of the original cast album in 1968 was enough to give my little teenaged self the courage to believe it was okay to be gay.) Those liberating impulses have been brought more up-to-date in Broadway shows like
Rent, Taboo, and Spring Awakening. By contrast, this Hair looks like perky kids from the mall putting on a fashion show of hippie outfits as seen in old magazine spreads.
I realize that I must have been lulled into expecting something more substantial by my memories of Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of
Hair. Working from a screenplay by Michael Weller, a playwright who’d covered similar territory in his own
Moonchildren, Forman transformed a loosey-goosey theatrical happening into a story with a real plot and characters. The movie highlighted the tension between Claude’s middle-American background and Berger’s free-wheeling urban hippie lifestyle, the marijuana cloud that facilitated a live-for-today blissfulness and the cold hard reality of young men being drafted and sent off to die in the jungles of Vietnam. The historical context that Forman and Weller supplied made Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot’s work even more meaningful. The final scene, set at a mass anti-war rally in Washington, made “Let the Sunshine In” as much of a political anthem as “Give Peace a Chance.”
Silly me for expecting a similar dialectic from this new production. This is
Hair for a dumber, shallower time. Paulus has the actors run through the audience every so often, as they did in the original production, but it was new back then, and now – after
Cats and The Lion King – it just seems faux. And the big ballads, especially “Where Do I Go” and “Easy to Be Hard,” have zero emotional impact, even though (or maybe because) the singers step down front and work the audience as if it were a special
summer-of-love edition of American Idol. The show ends on a sobering note, when Claude ships off to war in an Army uniform and comes back stretched out on a flag. But then the curtain call happens and the whole audience is invited to jump onstage and boogie around singing “Let the Sunshine In,” as if we were all back at
Mamma Mia diggin’ the dancing queen. For better or for worse, Paulus has staged
Hair as if it were the original jukebox musical, which maybe it was.
The Advocate, posted online August 8, 2008