Can Hair Be Taught To Hate?
by Peter Schjeldahl
The New York Times - September 27, 1970

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My visit the other night to "Hair", which recently attained it's 1000th performance in New York, was my first, I being one of those crazy New Yorkers who are crazy about the arts in general, but for some reason - too expensive, too much bother, too bourgeois (or something) - almost never go to the theater.  I did not feel, however, exactly a stranger to the play, which for three years has been filling the common cultural atmosphere with it's vapors.  I knew about the extent of it's international success and about the ubiquitousness of it's influence on theatrical manners and mores;  I was aware of all the controversy it has kicked up, and I was familiar with the terrific hit songs that have been lifted from it's score.

But none of my foreknowledge really prepared me for the ambivalence of my response to this theatrical prodigy, which left me dearly wishing that I had seen it earlier - say during the lamented 1967 "Summer of Love" that gave birth to it.  For, astonishingly enough, the three years of history that have changed me along with everyone else have also left a perceptible patina of age on "Hair," a patina which no amount of newly minted anti-Nixon-and-Agnew jokes can dissipate - inspiring some glum thoughts.

The fault (if that's the word) certainly does not rest with the current company which, whatever the feelings of individual members at having to mount this strenuous go-round night after night shows no signs of flagging conviction or enthusiasm.  Moreover, Tom O'Horgan's furious swirling, breakneck staging is fully as scary and exhilarating as it must have been on opening night; fueled by Galt MacDermot's wonderfully volatile score, still go off like skyrockets, tugging one's spirits behind them; the dizzy psychedelia of lights programmed to the rock music stands up to anything one experiences these days at the Filmier, and even the mild theater-of-cruelty insolence of actors variously teasing and harassing members of the audience retains it's therapeutic sting (and gratifying to one's sense of social justice, the patrons in the $15 seats (NOTE: These were the top priced seats in 1970) continue to catch the brunt of it). As theater "Hair" is plainly as sensational as ever.  The unexpected trouble with it is, so to speak, at it's roots.

What was surely devastating about "Hair" in it's infancy was the raw topicality of it's depredations - anti Vietnam War, interacts,
anti-"normality" - combined with the earnest sincerity of it's affirmations - peace, love, sexual liberty.  It was a musical not so much
about the then manic mood of radical American youth as a musical of it, a sort of mass theatrical self-portrait which authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado did not so much create as receive and transmit.  It was America's first "relevant" musical. Unfortunately, relevance as a style is treacherous; it does not age gracefully, but rather passes from youth to senility without intermission.  Watching the vividly real, passionate young folks of "Hair" today, one is repeatedly shocked by the rusty creak of allusions to Be-Ins, by the quaint ritual strewing of daisies, by the sanguine vision of easy interracial harmony, and by innumerable other instant relics of an already doddering sensibility.

Actually, I'm overstating this somewhat; the the archaisms of "Hair" are less shocks than little twinges, but they add up. One of their most serious effects is to focus attention on such details as plot, lyrics and dialogue - and that is sometimes not good. For suddenly one feels oneself obliged to empathize with a very freaky hippie commune leader who gets drafted apparently because he balks at burning his draft card, to thrill to expressions of maudlin, optimism and equally maudlin despair, and to open one's ears to all manner of fake poetry, stale humor and pop philosophy.  Clearly none of this stuff should matter in the least; the spirit should be the thing. And it is, mostly. But the day is obviously coming when the producers of "Hair" will be hard put to come up with authentically hip young actors (and everything depends, in this play, on the authenticity of the actors) who can mouth it's lines and lyrics without wincing inside.

I don't know for sure but I would guess that the defiant bourgeois-baiting that is so much of "Hair's" substance is rather more
defiant in tone, and a little nastier, than it was three years ago.  I imagine that at least in this respect the play has made an organic
adaptation to the changing times, meaning especially the evolution of longhair style from evangelizing for love to confronting in order to
unmask hate.  But the tender fabric of "Hair" can stand only so much of this; it is correctly advertised as a love-rock musical, the ardent
expression of a moment in America when a general communications lag left room for hope: the hippie could then believe that the manifest benignity of his instincts would eventually disarm the opposition, while the conservative mid-American could fancy that these weird kids were an aberration that would soon pass from the scene.  Now everybody knows better, and it seems clear that if the dawning of the Age of Aquarius gives way much more to darkness at noon - in the mood of the nation and therefore in the attitudes of the young engaged actors and playgoers - then "Hair" will simply die of a broken heart.

It is good enough to run forever. Won't it be queer if "Hair" proves to have been too good to survive?

Copyright The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

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