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I arrived in new York from Pittsburgh one weekend in July, 1968, a 17 year old with a single purpose: to see a new musical entitled Hair. There was one ticket available and I eagerly paid the $9.
How can I describe accurately the excitement and amazement of that performance? Certainly few theater pieces reduce one to blissful exhaustion by their emotional intensity. And I remember the commitment of the actors to what they were saying and singing, the fun they had performing, and my own desire to be on-stage with them.
I'm convinced everyone has their own Hair stories, even if they never saw one of the 35 companies that played worldwide. And not just because galt MacDermot's music commandeered the AM and FM airwaves. The Hair phenomenon was that the were existence on Broadway of this crazy thing with the crazy name affected the mass consciousness. Political movements create such shock waves; art rarely has the same effect. The Beatles and rock music altered the collective imagination of American society. Rock has since become the most universal of languages. More recently, Alex Haley's Roots did the same, although to a much lesser extent.
With Hair the theater itself regained a lost significance within the fabric of society. It was not only the show to see, but was a testament to a lifestyle in which theatrical expression was an integral and essential element. Long hair, drug use, open sexuality, protests, pulsating music were personalized, legitimized and glorified. Timothy Leary said "All good theater makes you want to go home and fuck." hair was a sensory ejaculation, a definite turn-on.
Back to the Cave
Hair's unapologetic presence provoked even those who would never otherwise involve themselves in controversy. In Paris, there was a celebrated battle between the Hair cast and the Salvation Army, when the latter repeatedly disrupted performances with bullhorns. How ironic that Hair's message of tolerance was regarded as immoral! Gilbert Abadee, who led the army crusade, maintained: "It is no censorship to forbid a show that abandons 40,000 years of civilization to return to the cave." many people, however, were trying to find that cave.
The impact of hair on the Broadway theater was astounding. "As a group we did a sit-in in a plaster palace." relates director Tom O'Horgan. "That's what we were really doing, or what we thought we were doing. The thing that still surprises me is that we took something and put it in a place it didn't belong and somehow succeeded with it."
Suddenly there was a new audience on the Great White Way: an audience that was young and vocal and attentive and discriminating, and audience for whom long hair was a symbol of their generations resistance to regimentation. And the audience was not all white. The emergence of a black audience on Broadway can partially be attributed to Hair's colorblindedness (sic).
A New Ball Game
O'Horgan's staging left an indelible imprint. So what if nudity and the negation of the proscenium and the utilization of theater games were familiar features of the off-off-Broadway movement - Broadway was a whole new ballgame. The techniques that O'Horgan employed were copied in many subsequent productions. Nudity became the biggest, most commercial commodity. "Every show that opened within the next two or three years, regardless of its structure, had an obligatory nude scene," O'Horgan remarked, "which was performed with all the sensuality of vivisection or open heart surgery."
Hair opened in October, 1967, the inaugural production of Joseph Papp's newly acquired Public Theater. It ran for the scheduled eight weeks and then transferred briefly to Cheetah. On April 29, 1968, hair took up residency at the Biltmore theater, where it remained until 1972. With an initial investment of $250,000, to date the piece has grossed over $80 million. Revenue from the various album sales have exceeded $30 million.
Although Hair never received a Tony award - due to deliberate and repeated changes in the eligibility code - the company was asked to, and did, provide the entertainment for the following years awards telecast. Hair was the first musical to be performed professionally inside a prison. The accomplishments are innumerable.
And now Hair is back, currently in previews at The Biltmore, with a scheduled October 5 press opening. An auspicious occasion or a cause for alarm? Is the motive behind this revival good old-fashioned American greed? Can Hair be as relevant as it once was, or has it become a dated curiosity, a souvenir of activist or hippie nostalgia?
Obviously, Hair will never have the same meaning it did in the late Sixties, nor the same impact. It was the child of a specific time and temperament, conceived in an era of rebellion and weaned on anger and frustration. Both O'Horgan and producer Michael Butler feel, however, that Hair is more timely now than it was then. Hair was a protest, but it was also an affirmation of the sanctity of the individual, the beauty of nature, the desire for love. familiar stuff really, which is probably why author Gerome Ragni calls the piece a "Tearjerker". In 1977, these values have again been misplaced, or so the creators maintain.
Evolution and Revival
"My reason for really doing it again is to find out what we were thinking at the time." O'Horgan states. "It's a kind of evolution with all the revivals. maybe we can revive ourselves. Hair sort of encapsulated a lot of things that were going on at the time. Some kind of merchant monster elements took over and ran with it, not just with Hair, but with the whole movement. Hair was a celebration of life and its creative energies." O'Horgan's voice has become angry. Pausing, he leans his head on his hands. "All of us have impossible tasks which we would like to try. One of mine is to put hair on again and get it cooking."
Hair is being recreated with a great deal of affection and verisimilitude of location, as if by retracing the initial steps, a shield of good karma will guide the endeavor. Not only did the current company rehearse in the same space that was used before, the Ukrainian Hall on Second Avenue, but they are inhabiting the same theater. In 1968, the owners of the 900-seat Biltmore accepted Hair because they thought it would never run. The Biltmore had never housed a musical. Its previous successful tenant had been Neil Simon's Barefoot In The Park.
Four of the present 26 cast members appeared in one version or another of hair before: David Patrick Kelly, Soni Moreno, Alaina Reed, and Jim Sbano. (Ms. Moreno wears the opening-night congratulatory beads Michael Butler gave each of the San Francisco cast members as part of her costume.) The remaining members of the current company were chosen from some 5000 auditions and, interestingly, many are not people with theatrical backgrounds and ambitions, but musicians. Doug Katsoros, who was playing the part of Berger until he had to leave the show because of a back injury, came to the audition as someone else's keyboard accompanist. O'Horgan asked Katsoros if he could sing; suddenly he had landed the lead in a Broadway musical.
But the immediacy of Hair has often enticed people into involvement with it. Some came to Hair and left for other things. Others are now part of the illustrious alumni association. Co-authors James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who played the leads in both the New York and Los Angeles productions, evidently couldn't resist the temptation to tread the boards once again. They now appear, albeit with some irregularity, as the arresting policemen following the nude scene. (I remember the policemen as being particularly intimidating.)
This Time Around
There are a number of changes this time around. Perhaps the most noticeable are the ticket prices. Although matching the standards already established on Broadway last season, the prices still come as a bit of a shock. At one time if you could scrape together $4, you could see Hair. The most expensive ticket in 1968 was $11, and Wednesday matinees offered reduced rates. Weekend prices are now $20, $15, and $10. The increases are, of course, related to the inflated production costs, which have risen about 40 percent. (Hair is still, however, the lowest capitalized musical on Broadway.)
Part of the increase can be attributed to the larger cast. O'Horgan realized shortly after the 1968 opening that "we were perilously close to the edge. If someone got sick we were in trouble." What this means visually is that now the entire tribe is not always present on the main acting area. Company members rotate their positions, sometimes standing by microphones in the wings, adding back-up vocals.
The script has also evolved, although the additions are more easily spotted than the deletions. Ragni feels "the nature of the piece demands that it be renewed"; references were always added to jibe with current headlines. Some of the current allusions - lip-service to Andrea McCardle, Crazy Eddie, Sun Myung Moon, for instance - are a bit glib and apolitical, but essentially New York in flavor, and therefore appropriate, for Hair was inspired by New York street life. In a sense it is a documentation and refinement of the activities Rado and Ragni observed. At the time they felt that the theater never approximated the excitement or energy of the various spontaneous Gotham happenings and that it should.
The actual script was written in Hoboken, of all places. According to Ragni - contrary to press agent mythologizing - Hair was not written on napkins and random pieces of shopping bags...but Hoboken is just as romantic.
August 3rd, the day before the first preview, I attend the afternoon run-through. I wasn't quite prepared for the shock of entering the theater, the eerie deja vu of seeing MacDermot, Ragni, Rado, and O'Horgan all assembled, the exact recreation os the set. MacDermot has aged the most, judging from his earlier photographs in The New York Times. The other three, perhaps a bit paunchier and balder, seem immediately familiar and impishly personable.
One pleasure about talking with Tom O'Horgan is that he is not into deception. Although concerned with the well-being of the revival and willing to promote it in any way necessary, he is totally disinterested in the press. I am welcome at the rehearsal, as people always are at his rehearsals, but he doesn't really care what I think. It's an attitude which makes me relax immediately.
Somehow the hair on the heads of the cast members seems shorter than expected, or remembered - or is long hair insignificant now? Before I can speculate too deeply on the comparative lengths, the first bars of "Aquarius" sound. I am transported, willingly entrapped and enchanted. How wonderful this music sounds when performed live. O'Horgan was right. After feeling hot and depressed and inert and annoyed all summer, I am rejuvenated by the first strains of the score.
O'Horgan believes that the musical demands of Hair are as strenuous as those in any opera. Members of the company were chosen for their vocal quality and durability. The numbers run smoothly, although the tribe ensemble has not yet coagulated. Ragni and Rado frequently interrupt with suggestions. Everyone is in on the directing act. O'Horgan doesn't mind. "We always established a great deal of democracy in Hair. Out of that comes a certain kind of life that you just don't get when you have somebody saying 'This is my vision'" Then he adds jokingly: "Of course it would have been easier if they (Ragni and Rado) were dead." O'Horgan explains how the original cast questioned every one of his decisions, how each issue raised within the material was heatedly debated. By contrast the current cast have offered no resistance. Times have changed.
O'Horgan describes his job as the editor. He scrutinizes the proceedings carefully, arms folded across his chest. Infrequently he expresses his approval by applauding. He addresses the company members endearingly as his "children" or his "creatures". Often one of them comes over for an appreciative pat.
If nothing else, O'Horgan hopes this revival will give the Broadway theater a much needed energy boost. "The theater is the last convening place we have. It is the one place people go and must be alive and awake. Too many people watch theater as if it were TV, waiting for the commercials and not participating."
During the rehearsal rado suddenly stands in as Claude,
the part he originally created. He fumbles the lyrics, but there
is incredible electricity as he begins to sing, and there's power and honesty
- and honesty is the only quality which will make this revival work.
Copyright The Soho Weekly News.