From Hair To Hamlet
by Robert Brustein
The New Republic - November 18, 1967

NOTE: This review of Hair is part of a larger article on Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival's new theater.

.......With two theaters still under construction, activities this year will be confined to the Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater, a stage (more accurately, a floor) handsomely designed by Giorgio Cavaglieri and Ming Cho Lee, which has the audience looking down on it from three sides. For Hair, Mr. Lee has built a scaffolding to house the rock band whose five members - rather like the orchestra in the Berliner Ensemble production of Dreigroschenoper - remain in full view of the audience at all times. projected from this scaffolding are various examples of modern poster art, including psychedelic designs, and huge blowup photographs of Twiggy, Lyndon, and other such makers of our fashions and nightmares.

I am sorry to say that what is currently happening on the stage is of considerably less moment than the environment itself, but it is one of the great advantages of permanent groups that the whole is always more important than its component parts. The concept of a hippie musical with an electronic score is potentially very exciting, and I am convinced that the sound of that rock - a sound that has developed real drive, sophistication, and vitality - is destined to become of tremendous importance to our stage. But despite it's effective moments, Hair is still too closely linked to the meretricious conventions of American musicals to realize it's potential, and there is something intrinsically one-dimensional in the hippie movement which prevents the material from ever developing a texture of any thickness.

Some of the hippies have recently become the victims of a vast publicity network, there is also something intrinsically voguish about their scene, and this gives one the recurrent feeling that Hair is going out of fashion even as it is being performed. Like Viet Rock - to which it owes it's inspiration and even a few of it's episodes - Hair is pieced together out of newspaper and magazine sections, being a topical series of allusions to contemporary politics and culture, designed less to convey information than to play imaginatively upon what is already known. Thus the book of the musical follows two close hippie friends - one a lower-class dropout named Berger, the other a middle-class boy named Claude - as they wander, in a kind of psychedelic picaresque, through the patterned experiences of the turned on generation: Putting down the square parents who, in turn, belittle their bizarre appearance (" And take off my beads, this is not a reservation."), trying to keep out of the army ("I want to be over here doing the things they're over there defending."), engaging in freewheeling erotic activity which discriminates neither between race, sex, nor partner ("If you do it with Claude tonight, I'll do it with you tomorrow"), organizing protest marches in the park ("A huge suck-in for peace....Bring your blankets with something to suck"), wearing crazy uniforms, necklaces, and tons of hair, and , above all, seeking escape from a hated reality in the "total self-awareness" induced by drugs. At the end, nothing can prevent Claude from service in Vietnam and certain death, and as a last sacrificial gesture he hands Berger his shorn locks before he boards the train.

Some of this is entertaining, but in none of it do we sense that the authors have thought about or felt their material very deeply, and they are too mindless in their acceptance of the teenage version of reality. The non-hippie world is facilely identified as a society of Puritan Moms and Dads who love war and hate love; the hippies are full of self-pity, self-congratulation, and self-satisfaction; and the book and lyrics are continually threatening to fall into sentimentality ("Follow the children, follow their smiles"). then, for all it's concern with sensation, self-awareness, new levels of feeling, Hair never manages to communicate the nature of the experience the characters so frequently exalt. And finally Hair conspicuously fails to record the growing conviction among hippies that the movement is over - a victim of a grosser and more brutal world than flower power can redeem.

As for the production, it has it's strengths, notably in Galt MacDermot's score which, if not authentic rock 'n' roll, nevertheless achieves a fine dynamic bounce. And some production numbers, particularly a pot phantasmagoria which essentializes American history from Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves to the Vietnam war, and which climaxes in the ritualized slaughter, under strobe lights, of Buddhists by nuns, then of nuns bu Indians, then of Indians by soldiers, is emotionally charged and exciting. But gerald Freeman's direction is designed more for the old musicals than the new; it reflects the razzmatazz of Jerome Robbins rather than the intensity of the Open Theatre; and it, therefore, establishes it's links more with West Side Story and Gypsy than with Viet Rock and America Hurrah (many, of course, will be grateful for this). The singing is strong and energetic, but the acting lacks color and variety, while the presence of the belted song, the brassy production number, and the choreographed action is essentially antithetical to an authentic hippie atmosphere which should be cool and lobbed-out rather than bouncing with chorus boy energy.

If Hair does not represent a revolution in musicals, however, it does point the way towards such a revolution: It will be very hard, in future, to compose a Richard Rogers-type work with quite the same kind of confidence and equanimity as before. In this sense, then, Hair succeeds not so much for what it accomplishes as for what it sets out to do. For a permanent theater, a good search can sometimes be as rewarding as a good discovery, and if Hair has any influence on the future work of the Public Theater - Hamlet is Mr. Papp's next production - then it will have justified itself within a system dedicated to organic growth.

Copyright 1967 The New Republic. All rights reserved.

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