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It is a hippie be-in. from under a blanket five or six youths and girls emerge - as totally naked as the Good Lord made them. Shocking? Surprising? Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that it is happening not in a San Francisco hippie settlement - it is happening in a hit Broadway musical. It is happening in Hair.
But then everything is happening in Hair. Four-letter words are thrown around the stage as casually as Broadway songwriters in years past might have rhymed "June" with "moon", pot-smoking and draft card burning seem as natural to Hair as Highland dancing was to Brigadoon, and there is one song cataloguing various sexual practices which shows just how unambitious Cole Porter was when he wrote Kiss Me, Kate!
What is happening to the Broadway musical? What is happening to the Broadway theater? Whatever it is, every Broadway producer in town is looking at Hair with a mixture of amazement, astonishment, fear, disgust, and goo old-fashioned envy.
hair has broken every rule and every taboo in Broadway's book. After a season of the no-success musical - the only hit was George M, which with it's old-time Cohan music is the opposite of Hair - the success of this hippie fiesta, this rock and flower garden, shattered everyone.
Before it went right, Hair officially did everything wrong. It started off-Broadway, and moved onto Broadway in a revised version, a thing that few Broadway musicals have ever done. Worse still, it took the side of youth in the generation battle. Broadway audiences are traditionally comfortably middle-class and menopausal.
hair shrieks of youth. Galt MacDermot's music is an adroit mixture of raga-rock (middle Beatles period) with enough broadway schmaltz to appeal to people who like The Sound of Music as well as the sound of music. But basically the musical image is new and youthful.
Broadway musicals are supposed to have an identifiable book. Hair has a book about as identifiable as the Manhattan telephone directory, a great cast of characters but nothing much to do.
And finally broadway musicals must not offend. They must massage with their message and send the audience out with a vaguely cheerful sense of uplift. Hair - gently because it does not wish to be too outrageous - tries deliberately to offend and tease audience susceptibilities.
The four-letter words, the frankness regarding bodily functions, the nudity, the acceptance of adolescent drug-taking, the anti-Establishment attitudes, the mockery of patriotism - these are not the normal ingredients of a Broadway hit.
Yet curiously enough - at least looking back with the benefit of hindsight - the success of Hair was inevitable, and the actual production of hair a very valuable battle that Broadway had to win.
The battle itself is simple enough. Last season was artistically the most successful that the Broadway theater had enjoyed in years. Imports, such as Rosencrantz and Gilderstern Are Dead, Joe Egg, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, even the short-lived Soldiers, joined such homegrown plays as The Price, Plaza Suite, and Spoffard. But note the phrase "artistically the most successful" fir it's sticking in the craw of every producer and every investor along the great white and dirty way. For economically the times have been hard.
The reason for the gap between artistic aspiration and economic achievement has been variously accounted for. But all accounts include one factor - the art movie houses. New York is the greatest movie town in the world, and the movies are dealing with a reality that broadway in the past has only hinted at.
In the last five years the movies have appropriated areas of expression and degrees of frankness that once would never have been encountered on public exhibition. The movies - and I mean the art movies, not the sleazy 42nd Street grind-house variety - have become far more permissive than anyone would once have dreamed possible. Obviously Broadway, pressed by competition and in a discombobulated state, needed to catch up.
Off-Broadway the new permissiveness and the new language were in full flight last season. The days when Shaw could shock an audience with Eliza saying "Not bloody likely!" are now so remote that it would be difficult to envision any phrase that might have the equivalent shock effect. Interestingly, the freedom of language in the theater goes far beyond what the theater critic is permitted to quote. The critic is forever using polite euphemisms for what is being spoken and acted out on the stage before him.
hair marks a new, yet predictable, trend. broadway, after a few gingerly four-letter sallies and hints at nudity, suddenly discovered the new permissiveness. And instead of bringing the police, it brings lines at the box office.
Hair in this age of protest has itself engendered a few protests. "Operation Yorkville", an interdenominational group led by Father morton A. Hill and Rabbi Julius Neumann, has protested to New York Mayor John Lyndsay, Police Commissioner Howard Leary, and the Office of the District Attorney. But no action has yet been taken. The policeman running down the aisle at the Biltmore Theatre, threatening to arrest the entire audience after the nude scene, is only an actor. The police who once, so many, many years ago, raided Minsky's are looking on Hair with an eye at least blind if not tolerant.
When all the dirty words have been spoken, the nude gestures made, the protests shouted and the music rocked, the final, beautiful impression of hair is one of great freshness and innocence.
These children smile winningly and give out flowers. Their music is the spirit of today, and they have a Thoreau skepticism that is as American as apple pie or burning draft cards. They are engaging and they are engaged. They frighten us with their talk about drugs - especially those of us middle-aged who only take sedatives and alcohol - yet finally they encourage us with their youth and honesty. Personally, I think Hair is fun, liberating, and at heart beguilingly pure. That, eventually, is why it had to succeed.
Today Broadway is trying to assess the effect of the success of Hair. Men who scoffed at Hair are wondering whether it would be safe to imitate it - or whether it is simply a unique phenomenon. Two things though are certain: First, the new permissiveness has arrived on Broadway. Second, so has rock music. In some instances this will merely mean Broadway musicals that are louder and nuder. But perhaps something of the youth and vitality of Hair will make it's mark. Twenty-five years ago a little-heralded musical, Oklahoma!, started a Broadway revolution with its gusto and freshness. The time has come for another revolution, and Hair could be the musical to start it.
Copyright Saturday Evening Post.