NOTE: This review of Hair is part of a longer article
that also reviews Boys In The Band.
Two current theater events are in the process of testing public readiness for a kind of theater which deals more boldly with life than the essentially make-believe and fastidious Broadway and off-Broadway climate has heretofore permitted.
The first is the new Broadway production of last fall's off-Broadway musical Hair. As revised by gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot, it virtually does away with plot to become a documentary collage of hippie behavior. It begins on a hopeful note that mankind is moving into the age of Aquarius "when peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars." Then it exorcises the past with the singing of a mass in which is intones "Sodomy, Fellatio, Cunnilingus, Pederasty, father, why do these words sound so nasty?" At this point, conventional theatergoers will either drop out in disgust or feel a sense of liberation. If they drop out, none of the thirty-odd numbers that follow is apt to reclaim them. But if they make the effort to stay with the impulses of the show's creativeness, they will be rewarded with a remarkable experience.
The plot, insofar as it is discernible, has something to do with a long-haired hippie named Claude who has daydreamed his way out of Flatbush (sic) by pretending to be from Manchester, England, and by moving into a manage a trois with a boy named Berger and a girl named Sheila. They and their hippie companions kid around, they smoke marijuana, and they participate in Be-Ins. Ultimately, Claude is drafted into the army, and the death of his spirit, and maybe his body, is lamented by the hippie community.
One detail of the show has been causing lifted eyebrows. In the last ten seconds of the Be-In scene, five boys and three girls appear naked on the dimly-lit stage. It is genuine, it is natural, and in my opinion is neither lewd nor obscene (which is what a jury would have to judge it, if under the new law some puritanical official should successfully try to censor it). Furthermore, if we can use total nudity in such widely distributed films as Blow-Up, it would seem ridiculous to deny it to theater and dance artists.
But this detail is only one aspect of the larger revolution that is being advanced here. Director Tom O'Horgan is pushing the medium to new limits by moving away from the verbality of multisensual theater. Instead of finding conventional musical-comedy performers to impersonate hippies, he has encouraged a bunch of mainly hippie performers inventively to explore their own natures with song and dance. Choreographer Julie Arenal has helped by arranging nondancers' dance movement, and the youths turn the theater inside out with their free-swinging antics.
The score is far and away the season's best and most varied. Particularly memorable are "I Got Life", "Where Do I Go?", "Good Morning Starshine", "Hare Krishna", and "Let The Sun Shine In". But in addition to these, there are short, catchy strains that keep coming back to you, such as "Manchester, England, England" and "Prisoners in niggertown, It's a dirty little war." The two funniest numbers are "Electric Blues", which mocks sentimental songs and ends up a crescendo of noise and light that blows the audience's mind; and White Boys - Black Boys" which makes fun of popular preconceptions about interracial sex.
The cast includes Shelley Plimpton, as the season's most adorable waif, whose anacoluthic lament for a hot-rod lover named "Frank Mills" creates a haunting innocence amid squalor. Ronald Dyson reveals a beautiful singing voice in his rendition of "Aquarius". Gerome Ragni and james Rado are their relaxed "genius-genius" selves as Burger (sic) and Claude. And Lynn Kellogg as Sheila, the Portchester girl who is having trouble fitting into the world of Tompkins Square, sings "How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel?" with a controlled inner emotion that is effective.
Designer Robin Wagner has ingeniously placed the orchestra
onstage on a truck and built a pop art background that, along with Jules
Fisher's colorful lighting, helps turn the theater into a way-out pad.
At the late preview I attended, the sound amplification system seemed to
be fighting the show, and the proportionate arrangements of the various
elements seemed still in a process of transition. However, one suspects
that the relaxed disheveledness of Hair may be intrinsic in a work that
so vigorously challenges Broadway convention.
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