Down at what once was the Astor Library in Lafayette Street and now is the most excitingly handsome off-Broadway theater in New York, there is a "roll" musical called Hair. I put roll in quotes because I am not young enough to know what kind of roll it is - rock 'n' roll, advanced roll, frug roll, modern roll, classical roll, and if I go on this way I'll start to sound like old Polonius describing all the kinds of plays the way he does in Hamlet. Anyway - roll music with a beat and a thump and a built in drive that tingles the hair at the nape of the neck. No wonder youngsters like it and gyrate to it.
Having said that, we come to the moment of regret. The words involved in the libretto, the performances involved in speaking the scenes, do not match, in interest the waves of music that come slapping at the audience and intensifying the emotions. The youngsters cast for Hair are good - some of them very good - but the music dominates and excels.
What is built into Hair is commentary - on our times and conditions and foibles and frailties. A musical of commentary. Heaven knows, we need commentary. We need something to cool it for all of us. We are a dissident and somewhat divided people at this grievous moment in history. Every one, as Jimmy Durante used to tell us, wants into duh act.
But there is for anyone with a drop of love for mysticism in his blood a way to bridge the scenes that do not enchant. Ghosts do it. The report from sober, reliable people is that the old Astor Library building - like the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London - is infested with several ghosts who make costumed appearances at times and keep a benevolent eye on the old structure. They will have no complaint against Joseph Papp, who had the wit and persuasion to bring about the changes in the building without destroying landmark place and although he wanted a theater there he did not want its decor and style mangled and scarred. He has won his point. The style is intact, the historicity is unscarred. It is a lovely place - for actors, audiences or even ghosts, and the old shades that are said to walk around must be happy as things are. If a scene dulls you, fall to thinking about the ghosts.
Mr. Papp is to be thanked and I, for one, herewith thank him.
Also to be thanked is Gerald Freeman, the director of Hair. Mr. Freeman several times at the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park has excited me with the ingenuity and the spirit of his direction. He goes about his job with a special imagination and, for me, has made lively and palatable at least one play of Shakespeare that has doldrums built into it. He erased those doldrums and supplied invention, caprice, tempo and touches of honest burlesque to save the play from the sleepies.
There is a generous cast in Hair and it works hard to bring into being a show that makes one want to cheer and if the total compulsion to cheer doesn't rise and boil over then there are several reasons of which the book is one.
But the music. The music, I say. There is something worth your money and that money is a bargain. The top - $2.50. When that gets going and the voices rise in song and the instruments beat it out, twice that and more would not be too much for a ticket. What's more, the sight lines are good from any seat and there is no dissonance from construction of the house. The sound is pure and unadulterated. Some critic now passed on to whatever critics pass on to once wrote that at The Playhouse, soon to be demolished, "every seat is a front row seat." That is the case at this new off-Broadway house of elegance and taste.
The composer, Galt MacDermot, is the hero of Hair.
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