Hair - Side, Back, and Front Views
by Robert Kotlowitz
Harper's Magazine - September 1968

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Eight times a week, Monday through Saturday, America's first rock opera, Hair, sends out sweet bursts of youthful energy into the pickled New York air while audiences find it harder and harder to get seats to performances.  The work is a sellout on Broadway; and I mean it only in a commercial sense, for there are purists of the psychedelic world of lower Manhattan who believe that the show has really sold out to the enemy camp uptown, which continues to buy tickets in unending quantities.

Hair seems to have made it mainly through word of mouth, a self-feeding phenomenon in the New York area which sends out inviting vibrations through the middle-class precincts of the five boroughs, of Long Island, Westchester, and exerbia.  And there is plenty in the show to talk about: a varied score by Galt MacDermot powered by that rock beat, only slightly adulterated by the demands of Broadway, that is in the very bones and nerves, it seems, of nearly every young American; a well publicized nude scene; and, in place of language, an affinity for the crude pellets of vocabulary or what we used to call dirty words.  But there is something curiously attractive about the show's excessiveness (and vigor), it's willingness to be both flamboyant and ruthless on behalf of it's cause.  The evening is a series of more or less salubrious shocks to the personality; and what keeps it steadily exhilarating is a kind of good-natured improvisatory humor that sweeps almost everything that might be offensive off the boards.

It is, in many places, a very funny show.  A few laughs - the most dispensable ones - are one liners, pure raggedy-end gags, which are no better, and sometimes are far worse, than the ones Guy Bolton or Dorothy and Herbert Fields used to write for standard musicals.  Most are purely visual.  Early in the show, Gerome Ragni (who wrote the lyrics and book with James Rado, and shares the principal roles with him) swings out over the audience's vulnerable heads on a rope, like Tarzan, singing about his sixteen-year-old virgin mistress; Rado himself gets tarred-and-feathered before the performance is ten minutes underway; a pregnant young girl comes out briefly to eulogize pot and try to find a husband; and there is a brief transvestite moment later when a Scaresdale matron suddenly swings open her mink coat to reveal that she is wearing jockey shorts underneath.  It is hippie litany that is being unfolded here: in no particular order, individuality, love, pacifism, cosmology, and drugs, as well.  The best laughs, of course, spring from those moments when sight, sound, and content come together in effortless harmony, and director tom O'Horgan sets everything kinetically working onstage - lights, actors' bodies, music, voices.  Those laughs are inspired and they make the best of O'Horgan's work in Hair by far the best to be seen on a stage in New York.  There is a takeoff on The Supremes, for example, in which three Negro girls sing about the sexual superiority of white boys, while the nearly self-parodying style of small singing groups is impaled once and for all and in the most friendly way.  Abraham Lincoln's birthday - "Happy Birthday Abie Baby" - is celebrated by a young Negro girl who plays Mr. Lincoln herself in beard and top hat.  At the same time, a beautiful young white girl kneels before her, polishing her shoes.  meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant, General Custer, and a few other national heroes are being forcefully demolished on the stage.

Having seen the show from out front (while a couple behind me fought over the husband's resistance to "all GD hippies," falling quiet only when the nude scene came along to close the first act; they returned meekly after intermission to sit silently through the second), I decided to try to see it again from the wings.  A week later, I was met before an evening performance by Michael Maurer, who is the production stage manager for Hair.  He is responsible, generally speaking, for all cues, for seeing that everything is in the right place at then right time, lights, props, scenery, and humans, some of whom have been known to go to pieces at crucial moments.  Maurer stands in the wings at the right of the stage throughout the performance, wearing a headphone as he faces a lectern that holds a heavily marked script.  This is the ninth musical show he has worked on and it is, he says, almost impossibly complex.  "I damn near go blind watching it every night and deaf listening to it."

One stroboscopic sequence alone, which requires 108 lighting cues, starts out slyly as a somewhat tasteless spoof of suicidal Buddhists in Vietnam, then suddenly suddenly brings on miniskirted nuns, pursued by coolie-hatted VC's, who in turn are being hunted - and destroyed - by green Berets.  In they come, one group following another, while their faces and bodies fragment in the twitching, blinking lights and the corpses litter the smoke-filled stage.  As the stunned audience slowly gathers it's wits and lamely tries to applaud, the groups suddenly re-form, and go through the same sequence in reverse, like a fallen blossom being put back together again, petal by petal.  To get the company through the scene and the 108 cues, three electricians work the levers with their hands, elbows, knees, and even their feet, while Michael Maurer shouts directions to them and the cast.  It is a lightening moment backstage.

Maurer explains that there was an average of a dozen props for every cast member.  Each prop - mikes, masks, wigs, flags, shoes, beards, etc. - has to be in precisely the same spot at every performance, ready to be whisked onstage.  (In Hair the cast of twenty-three is onstage almost the entire performance, running off briefly from time to time to transform themselves.)  Beyond that, the production uses four hand mikes, five shotgun mikes, one wireless mike, and eight loudspeakers, including one that hangs in the rear of the theater;  Maurer is responsible for them all.  The band, which plays from an ancient flatbed truck on the opposite side of the stage, primarily is made up of rhythm instruments, including two, sometimes three, guitars, a bass, percussion, and one versatile wind instrumentalist;  all of them, to put it mildly, are amplified.  As Maurer explained these details, Gerome Ragni practiced a new rock tune, sotto voce, accompanied by Galt MacDermot on an electric piano across the stage.

The half-hour call came.  MacDermot disappeared.  Ragni wandered across the sharply raked playing platform on which most of the action takes place.  "Man," he said "if you can stand crowds, join me in my dressing room."  He was wearing dungarees and he was bare chested.  His own hair stood out from his head like the sun's aureole.  "Come on," he said "You'll meet my son.  He comes to see the show almost every night.  Most of the time, I bring him out at the end to take a bow.  He's an Aquarius.  That's where the show's Aquarius song came from."

Ragni shares his dressing room with James Rado, I discovered, and it measures about eight by twelve feet.  When we walked in, I was introduced to Ragni's son, Eric, who is four years old and wears his hair around his ears; to a young, silent, poker-faced gentleman in Mod clothing, in from London to see the show; to a sunburned and handsome Polish lady with a ponytail; to Earl, a dresser for Ragni and Rado (NOTE: I believe that this refers to Earl Scott, official company tarot card reader, and very good friend of Ragni and Rado's); to a nameless young man, with hair below his shoulders and scarves at his neck and waist; to Mrs. Peter Ustinov; and to Rado.  Together, we moved gingerly around the carpeted floor.  Above our heads, spotted balloons hung from the ceiling and posters from Lincoln center covered the walls.

Mrs. Ustinov sat down at the head of a long couch, looking abstracted.  Her husband, she said, was opening his play The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, that night in Chichester, England.  She hoped he was all right.  Eric Ragni ran around the room splattering a deck of tarot cards behind him.  "There he is, the greatest little man," his father said.  "Eric, here's a groovy Indian blanket for you."  James Rado looked up from his dressing table.  "I'm wearing that on stage tonight." he said.  "I'll give it to him later."  Rado put on a long, blond wig over his own long, blond hair.  He looked at himself in the mirror and picked up a pair of scissors. "I swear that this thing is growing." he said. "It gets longer every night."

The door to the dressing room opened.  Two young men in black sandals, black chinos, and black beards, wearing heavy crosses around their necks, entered tentatively.  When they saw Ragni, they walked over to him through the crowd, smiling in an otherworldly way, and whispered a few words into his ear.  Then they did the same to Rado, and left.  The Polish lady said that they looked familiar; were they writers?  "Those" Rado said, "are Brothers from London, founders of a new religion who believe the world is going to end in our generation.  They call themselves Structuralists.  they don't have sex and they're busy proselytizing the company."

"Oh, Bloody." said the Mod.

The young man with the scarves leaned over my shoulder and said, "Would you mind telling me what you're writing in that pad? It makes me very nervous. "The fifteen-minute call came. "I think I'd better go to the bathroom." Rado said. "It always happens to me at this time."  Someone reminded Ragni that their director, Tom O'Horgan, had a new play called Futz opening off-Broadway that night.  It was decided to send a telegram of encouragement from the cast of Hair.  While Earl, the dresser, worked on Ragni's hair, pulling it back tight to transform him into an Indian for his first appearance onstage, Ragni tried out various messages, all of them, naturally, punning and all rejected by his groaning friends.  Finally, a collaboration between Ragni, Mrs. Ustinov, and the Polish lady produced: "What's all the Futz about? Futz you."

"Oh, Bloody." said the young man with the scarves.

"Ten minutes, ten minutes," the call came.  The company manager entered the dressing room and handed Ragni his paycheck envelope.  Ragni tossed it in the air and let it lie in the open dressing room drawer in which it landed.  Eric spread out the tarot cards on the couch; his father handed him a flower. "Take care of it through the show." he said.

Rado returned to the dressing room, shaking his head in disbelief.  "Man, those Structuralists just tried to get into me for  a hundred bucks out there." he said. "And you gave them two hundred." someone suggested.  "No," Rado said "I settled for a pair of sandals." He held them up.

"You are rushing around all of the time." the Polish lady said in distress.  "That is the trouble with you Americans."

"That's how we always work up to a performance." Rado said.

"Rushing! Rushing!" She twitched her ponytail.

"Earl," Ragni suddenly called to the dresser, "where is my loincloth?"

A young man with hair like Prince Valiant stuck his head in the door.  "Anyone got my hairspray?"  No one answered.

"Will someone please take Eric to the bathroom?"

"I saw Rosemary's Baby this morning.  I can't stand those movie screens.  Man, so flat, so boring.  They sit in front of you like a big television set."

"I am looking to read a novel by Anthony Burgess called Tunc."

"We're calling a full company rehearsal tomorrow from two to six.  That's right, two to six."

"You look funny, Daddy."

"Your daddy makes people happy, dear."

"Hold the flower up.  It'll get crushed."

"What time is it in Chichester?"

"I don't know whether they'll get this show in London.  The young uns will but the others might find it, I dunno, pretentious."

"Can you imagine, a hundred bucks."

"By next month that wig'll be down to your ankles."

"Let's go."

"Somebody took my copy of The Magus."

"You're sure you're not writing anything about me in there?"

"OK, Gerry, let's go. You can paint Eric's hand later."

Suddenly Ragni disappeared, heading for the back of the theater for his first entrance down the center aisle.  Rado and I walked into the wings and joined Michael Maurer.  "Mike" Rado said, "I'm a little worried about a laugh that's not coming in the right place.  Tonight, why don't you try bringing up the lights when I..."  Members of the company wander trance-like around the stage.  No curtain separated them from the audience.  The band moved into place on it's flatbed truck.  A few performers wandered down the aisles of the theater.  Rado walked onto the stage, sat down broodingly, and wrapped himself in the groovy Indian blanket.  Michael Maurer sighed.  "Every night is a new night."

One of the electricians tipped his chair back in my direction and said over his shoulder, "You seen this show? Wait'll you hear the fucking language."  He was bald.  At 8:38, several members of the audience began to clap their hands mildly.  They were joined by one or two others.  "When does the show begin?" someone called.  "Jesus Christ," Maurer said. "They must be blind. It began five minutes ago."  Rado was still brooding in the middle of the stage, enclosed by his blanket.  A small, pretty girl, with long, straight hair down her back, picked up a lighted brazier and looked questioningly at Maurer.  He pointed an index finger at her.  All the electricians were on their feet.  "Okay, Shelley," Maurer said to the girl.  "Go, sweetheart."

Shelley walked slowly onto the stage like a high priestess, putting down the brazier in front of Rado and handing him a flower which he sniffed passionately.  Soft, electronic sounds began to come from the band: bells, chimes, Oriental chromatics. Several other cast members wandered onstage, languorously.  Down the center aisle came the rest of them in single file; to reach the stage they had to climb three steps.  Gerome Ragni wore his loincloth and Indian headdress.  He somersaulted onto the stage in slow motion.  Someone else rolled on.  Another boy stood on his head.  Then everyone began to embrace.  Shelley found herself in a long, quiet kiss with a boy named Steve Curry.  The band moved on from the soft, reverberant chromatics of the East to the assertive American beat.  At an unexpected moment, a Negro boy named Ronald Dyson rose to his feet and let loose a big, belting voice. "When the moon," he sang, his voice curling around the melody, "is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with MArs."  There was a sudden whispering noise from the front of the house as the audience sat bolt upright in their seats, and the show was on.

Copyright Harper's Magazine. All rights reserved.

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