I first saw Hair on a September evening in 1968. I had flown in from London that day and was tired and cross and generally antagonistic to the world. I had been in England all summer and word filtered about "America's tribal love-rock musical" across the ocean and I went because I Was Curious (tired). Back in those days -- 1968 seems a long time ago -- Hair offended some people, but for most of its audience it was a bracing experience. Even then it was beginning to be institutionalized, but -- and this is the big thing about Hair -- its audiences weren't. While the cast was settling into what was very literally a groove, the audience was still getting that I'm-seeing-something-for-the-first-time feeling.
Since 1968 I have seen the show in London and paris --the London cast being slack and a bit on the lethargic side, disaster in a show that depends on energy above anything else, and the Paris cast full of teeny-boppers, sixteen and seventeen years old and pudgy, singing away in some kind of franglais-cheveuxesque, "Bon jour soolfur-deoxeed, Allo, carbon-monoxeed".
By now hair is an institution. It has all the problems of an institution. The co-authors of the book, Rado and Ragni, had a spat with producer Michael Butler, because they tried to introduce new material into the New York production -- which hardly seems very controversial, since Hair is supposedly a free-form, adaptable show. It still has those who hate it and for every different reason. Some hit the nudity, which isn't all that much, since the performers are clad in light -- they are deep maroon and mostly lost in the shadows. But more critics say the show is enabled, a bourgeois-ossification of hippiedom. And so it is. But then hippies are among the most middle-class sorts there are, and like all embalming, the embalming in Hair maintains most of the beauty of the original while doing away with the pockmarks, in a shrewd and entirely understandable cosmetic operation.
I went back in New York a couple of weeks ago. The cast seemed a little smaller. The songs -- "Aquarius" and "Frank Mills" and all the rest -- maintain their zing. The shock effect is gone, but it is still intriguing to see a group of young actors on the escalator. Being in Hair is the road to success in theater these days, for a lot of people anyway. Fellini found Hiram Keller for his Satyricon there, and every European film-maker has canvassed the casts for juvenile leads and extras. In New York, Sally Eaton of Joseph Papp's ur-Hair is still around, pregnant as ever. Galt MacDermot, who wrote the tunes, lots of them pop classics, comes in to shake up the musicians every Saturday or so. And one of the tribe, Fluffer Hirsch, substituting as Woof, does a fine job, exhibiting the kind of zap that puts young hirsutes into showbiz orbit.
Just as always, the cast was on top of the times it was living in. They have a fine sense of the showbiz dollar, and they are intelligent. The substitute Woof, analyzing rock musicals as a whole, said, "It's hard to extrapolate a theory of the rock musical on the basis of Hair". Some members of the cast are hung-up on vitamins, taking a thousand units of vitamin C every day, and taking vitamin E for excitement and calcium to calm down. Maybe it works. The cast of Hair looks a lot more serviceable than the cast of, say, Salvation, a blary, formula rock musical, which is all forced smiles and forgettable songs.
Hair is an idealization of lifer; the supposed catastrophe of the hero's getting drafted isn't really that much of a catastrophe, since you know he's still got his hair, really, and will be back on-stage tomorrow night. The old musicals showed you the rosy side. So does Hair. There's a little pathos, but not much anger. With Hair you come back for more. And you go out whistling.
Copyright The National Review.