The story line of Hair, the musical with which the new York Shakespeare Festival has inaugurated it's indoor home on Lafyette Street is so attenuated that it would be merciful to label the piece a revue. Examined under this rubric, it can be appreciated for what it essentially is - a wild, indiscriminate explosion of exuberant, impertinent youthful talents. What if coherence is lacking, discipline meager and taste often deplorable? The youngsters - authors and performers - have the kind of vitality that sends the memories of an older theatergoer wandering back to the twenties - to the bright impudence of "The Grand Street Follies" and "The Garrick Gaieties".
Hair, it seems to me, is today's equivalent to those Off Broadway revues of four decades ago in which another generation of gifted newcomers proclaimed their arrival. There are, of course, significant differences in content and style, but the great, overriding similarity is that of new voices expressing themselves with a freshness and vigor that warn they mean to take over uptown one of these days.
The brash young people of "The Grand Street Follies" and "The Garrick Gaieties" did pretty well. In the former were performers like Whitford Kane, Albert Carroll, Helen Arthur, Irene Lewisohn, Dorothy Sands, and Paula Trueman. In the latter were Philip Loeb, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Libby Holman, Romney Brent, Sterling Holloway, Edith Meiser, Alvah Bessie, and Betty Starbuck, and the songs were written by a team names Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers.
Whatever reservations one may have about Hair one is constantly disarmed by the youngsters' engaging high spirits, which is exactly how the youngsters in "The Grand Street Follies" and "The Garrick gaieties" made their audiences feel. At least that is how I felt in those wonderful sunny days when everything seemed possible, but after all I was almost of their generation and felt as one of them. What did more objective observers think?
I checked the archives of this newspaper. In June of 1925 Stark Young, then the drama critic, wrote of the "Follies": " The happiness of these players and their friendship with the audience are always irresistible." In May 1926, Brooks Atkinson, then ensconced in the arbiter's seat, discussed a second edition of the "gaieties" and observed that "it is the most intelligent revue in town, sparing none of the gravest art theaters in it's satire, buoyant for the most part, and well staged."
The young satirists of the twenties were preoccupied with the theater. The sketches were largely take-offs on the plays currently on Broadway, generally aimed at serious dramas like O'Neill's "Desire Under The Elms" and Sidney Howard's "They Knew What They Wanted". Pauline Lord, who played in the Howard work was an innocent source of merriment to both revues.
Occasionally there was an attempt to comment on some other aspect of American life. In the first "Garrick Gaieties" according to an unsigned review in The Times, there was a sketch by Arthur Sullivan and Morrie Ryskind "in which president Coolidge returns to the White House after calling on Herbert Hoover, to have it pointed out to him that it's past 10 and that Lincoln wouldn't have gallivanted around in such fashion." It doesn't sound very funny now, but the reviewer reported that this sketch had the evenings "most genuinely comic idea."
Hair is much more concerned with the larger issues than it's predecessors of the twenties. Although it devotes a good deal of it's time to the tribal rites of the hippies, it lashes out at public figures. It's comment on the war in Vietnam is biting, and it's contempt for contemporary institutions is unmistakable. But these positions are expressed in scattered lines.
The fundamental viewpoint and freshness of Hair make their mark not through the diffuse targetry of the lines but through the liveliness of the young people who sing, dance, and shuffle in the open playing space of the delightful Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater, and particularly through the score.
Jill O'Hara, Sally Eaton, Shelley Plimpton, Walker Daniels, and Gerome Ragni are among the members of an attractive ensemble that reminds one of the spirited young players of the twenties. And James Rado and Mr. Ragni, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Galt MacDermot, who wrote the distinctive rock music, make one feel that they will go on to bigger and better things.
In 1925 the anonymous New York Times reviewer wound up
his notice of the first "Garrick Gaieties" with these words: "The lyrics
by Lorenz Hart were mature and intelligently contrived. Richard Rogers
music was tuneful and well adapted to the needs of the entertainment."
This for a score that included "Manhattan", "Sentimental Me", "AN Old Fashioned
Girl", and "April Fool"! Could be that the score of Hair will shape up
as an authentic voice of the popular culture of 1967.
Copyright 1967 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.