Hair, the American tribal love-rock musical, opened in the fall for a limited run off-Broadway. The show received notices that any uptown show would have envied. the plot concerned a bunch of hippies, one of whom, Claude, had been sent his draft notice, and the characters ambled around with him as he more or less said good-bye to his hippie existence. At the end, symbolically, he cuts off his hair and goes off to war. If this summery seems confusing and vague, it is only because hair's plot echoed these adjectives. The book scenes, as much as anything else, served simply to launch musical numbers that indicated the hippies youthful dissatisfaction with much of the world around them, particularly Vietnam.
But since the show was set for only a limited run, it either had to close or move. And since it was such an off-Broadway success, the question wasn't really whether to move it, but where.
Someone thought of Cheetah.
It was probably as astute an idea as anyone had come up with all year. Cheetah, a leading Broadway discotheque, was a perfect place to unite this show about kids and their troubles with kids who have troubles. Not only that, but the kids were in a sense getting to see the show free. Variety explained that the "price of admission will cover the show plus post-performance terping and psychedelic light displays, which are the stock and trade of the club." It was obviously going to be a bonanza.
As someone close to the show explained: "We thought that taking it to Cheetah would open up another whole arena of theatergoing: we couldn't have been more wrong. The show wasn't as effective at Cheetah; the acoustics were terrible. The step was not significant enough to get space in the papers and there was no chance to accumulate promotional material. So it was not re-reviewed. Those who did come liked it less than before, so they said nothing. We thought Cheetah was the "in" thing for kids. We thought we could combine the discotheque-goers and the theatergoers, but the two groups never became a union. They had a lower-middle-class group going there. How can I put it to you? there were few visiting caucasians."
Hair, as it was done at Cheetah, with the audience on three sides of a platform, was a very loose experience: the actors wandered around almost, it seemed, at will. (actually they were following the brilliant direction of Gerald Freeman, who had done the show off-Broadway originally and restaged it for the Cheetah presentation.) There was no fourth-wall feeling whatever, and the sense of participation that was allowed the audience was wonderful. I talked briefly with one of the actors.
"You like walking in and around the audience?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's nice. It keeps you from getting bored, you know?"
"Anybody ever get upset with the way it's done?"
"Not so far."
"The anti-war business: anyone ever blow up over that, maybe yell back at you, maybe?"
"Wouldn't that be terrific if they did? 'Scuse me, I'm on."
I suppose the last remark ought to be explained: this conversation, dull as it is, is reprinted here because it took place during performance and not backstage. The specifics were that I was standing at the back. The actor - what his name was I don't know - was just waiting around for his next cue. he looked as if he wanted to talk so I started talking, and we must have gone on for three or four minutes, chatting away. Mostly we talked about why there was nobody there. The house, enormous, was maybe one-tenth full. Anyway, the point of this is that you can't really dislike a show much when you feel loose enough to talk to the actors while they're working. All that freedom was one of the nicest things about Hair.
And the directing. Example: Know how Hair ended? Four, maybe six, toy tanks were on stage - all the kids were gone now - and the tanks were wound up and moving slowly, slowly, and firing at each other, toy tanks blasting away as the lights died. I don't know what you think, but I think that's an eloquent way of stating the folly of war. Hair was full of things like that. And the young cast helped. There was an obvious but undeniable poignance in the juxtaposition of the twenty-year-old-looking kids and the war, which was then - in December (Editors note: 1967) - tearing the country apart.
Hair was also, of course, amateurish in most respects. The lyrics were unintelligible, the dialogue inept. But it had youth and nice tunes and a terribly strong anti-war sentiment, and you didn't care (I didn't) that it was repetitive and silly. It was, for me, beyond criticism: I expect it is about the best theatre I'll ever see in a discotheque. But you don't impose the same dramatic criteria on Hair that you do on Happy Time. One glories in its amateurishness, the other in its professionalism. One tried to tell a coherent story with character, plot, motivation and whatever else you want to include. The other just rambled along, and when it got into trouble, the actors started to jump around energetically and asked for your forbearance. I gave it gladly.
Then the decision was made to bring Hair to Broadway where, after terrible difficulty it arrived on April 29 (Editors note: 1968). It had a much augmented score, a much shortened book. The book, in fact, was all but nonexistent now. But that was not the only change that had happened to Hair. The theatre into which it moved was a standard Broadway house, so that when the actors came into the aisles, you were very much aware of a certain falseness, an attempt at theatricality. A new director, Tom O'Horgan, had been hired, and he had changed the show in many ways, one of which was adding a very strong whiff of campy homosexuality. Example: In the earlier version a young man is about to leave home, and his mother grabs him and shoves his head into her bosom, saying with deadly serious and therefor comic effect, "This is where it's at, baby, not out there." When the moment took place in O'Horgan's Broadway version, the mother, instead of being played by a middle-aged suburban-type woman, was played by a young male actor dressed in drag.
But if O'Horgan had damaged the show, a lot of the damage was beyond anyone's control. When Hair opened off-Broadway, Johnson was going to be President forever, hippies were still a conceivable subject for drama, and the Vietnam war was very much as it had been for years: unendurable and unending.
When Hair opened on Broadway, Johnson was no longer a subject for satirical venom: the man had announced his retirement and was going, going, gone. the whole hippie thing was going, going, gone, too: Time had an article a few days after hair opened describing a garbage ridden, drunk filled homosexual slum and then sid that this was what the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, "once the citadel of hippiedom and symbol of flower-power love" looked like now. Hippies were still in existence, but the "movement" wasn't what it had been. And besides, when Hair had opened off-Broadway, New York had not yet seen the almost dozen shows that dealt with the same subject. It wasn't Hair's fault, but hippies were a bore now. And even Hair's most moving material, the Vietnam war, was somewhat nullified. There was a light, however dim, at the end of the tunnel: peace talks were starting in Paris. This obviously wasn't Hair's fault either.
But recasting the crucial lead role of Claude was. The boy I saw at Cheetah was young and coltish, and one felt that it was a shame he was going to be drafted and maybe killed. In his place was put author-lyricist James Rado. Now I mean this: I think Rado is one of the most talented American actors under thirty-five. I have seen him easily hold stage with an actress who was giving what Walter Kerr called one of the dozen best performances of his theater-going lifetime. Rado is big and good looking, and he has power and technique as well as feeling. He has everything.
I don't know exactly how old he is, but i bet he won't see thirty again. And if he will, his physical size on stage and the maturity he projects make it seem as if he won't see thirty again. And there he is, playing the role of this kid who just got his draft notice. I kept expecting the obligatory scene in which the butler explains to the maid how the master was ill as a child, and didn't get started in school until late and after college he had taken two masters degrees plus a doctorate, which was why someone as long in the tooth as he was, was about to be drafted. So there it was, poor Hair, redirected and badly, recast and damagingly, with its pertinence gone.
Obviously it had to be the musical smash of the season.
It was a triumph for the power of the television critics, all of whom loved it. As a matter of fact, the television notices were so good that in an early ad Hair didn't even bother to use the Channel 2 review that only said it was the "best musical of the year." Eventually, Hair got around to honoring the Channel 2 quote, but they had other wares to sell first. The two main quotes they used in their early ad campaign were ones that said that Hair "makes Marat/Sade look like Peter Pan" and another that called it " the frankest show in town."
These quotes are both, of course, saying the same thing: "Come see the penises!". That was the gimmick hair pushed first: the little old penis. Now all shows have a penis or two around, but they are usually hidden by clothing. Marat/Sade had an actor walking naked on stage with his back to the audience. In other words, all those Scaresdale ladies got to look at a strange man's bottom. Hair turned the strange man around, reproduced several of him, and lo, at the first-act curtain, you in the audience got to see several penises. Apparently, they eventually dimmed the lights a bit to increase the aesthetic of the moment, but when I saw the broadway Hair at a preview, I detected no dimming. The moment was there in all its DaVincian glory: there were these dancers, a little edgy, standing there, limp penises and all. (There were also some bare boobs around, but this is the twentieth century, and bare boobs are nothing nowadays.) But a penis! Suddenly you knew what art was all about.
Then the moment died. Horribly.
Because the act ended in a black-out. Only you really can't ever get a total black-out on stage because there are always lights in the wings so that the actors and the stagehands don't get killed in the rush. And during the black-out, what you saw were all these little naked gypsies, horrendously embarrassed, throwing their little hands across their fronts as they scurried madly off stage toward sanctuary. Now, of course, no one was shocked. None of the critics and no one in the audience. They all said "How freeee! isn't it divine?"
I was shocked.
Partially, I suppose, because I am a prude. But i like to think there was another reason. In "The Silence" Ingmar Bergman had Ingrid Thulin masturbate, and it is as unshocking and relevant as anything else you can think of that has artistic validity. The act of self-abuse only strengthens and clarifies what we know about the character. Masturbation is a perfectly legitimate form of human endeavor indulged in by a majority of the animal kingdom. I doubt that it accomplished much in contributing to the dignity of man, but it is grist for the artist if he chooses to use it. Bergman did, and watching Miss Thulin was not even remotely shocking: it was painful and sad.
But a girl-scout type jerking off on camera: that's shocking. And so was the penis baring in Hair. It added nothing to the show, no matter how much the creative hierarchy pleaded artistic purity, as they tried to do. It was, as one admiring public-relations man said, "a terrific job of titillation. It's really what drew attention to the show." After the show was established, as indicated, they started using the "best-musical" quote.
As can be imagined, the LSD-endorsing, draft-card burning aspects of hair got to some of the Establishment critics: "The most dismaying how of 1967-1968 is the broadway version of an off-Broadway rock musical, Hair, which has found a certain type of Audience and may run for a little while. It is vulgar, perverted, tasteless, cheap, cynical, offensive and generally lousy, and everybody connected with it should be washed in strong soap and hung up to dry in the sun" wrote John Chapman in the Daily News.
"hair is a tangled, mad-mod musical whose ultimate obscenities are not shocking though execrably tasteless, whose cast with two exceptions looks permanently bathless, whose points are not irreverent but sacrilegious; it's hymns of "love" are evilly hateful..." This was the opening of Jack O'Brian's notice in the New York Daily Column.
But if you think those notices are bad, catch this: "Hair makes me sick...up there on stage for 2 1/2 hours is an ersatz tribe of loving, rocking, musical, hairy, quasi-hip people...they sing of "Hashish and "Sodomy" and drag in a "Colored Spade" (the play is just that imprecisely redundant), and whisper "I believe in love." Showstopper: "I Got Life"...If you have never seen a nude boy before - from the front! - and you don't mind bringing a flashlight (suddenly the stage gets very, very dark), then go...Hair is mildly funny, like remembering when you thought people did it by using wires; both experiences are invalid, but you can still hallucinate on them, right?"
If this last notice seems to you to be a slightly different kind of negative notice, then you are very astute, because it does not come from an Establishment source at all: it is the review of Hair printed in the East Village Other, which is the hippies' own paper and obviously a source that understands its subject matter reasonably well.
Now a bit more from the East Village Other's blast on Hair, because the critic is getting to a very solid point: "Unfortunately, the sellout audiences insist, it seems (including the critics who have also sold out), on watching the play as though it is a reflection of the Reality of Their Kids and tells them the answers...Perhaps the the most condemning comment to make about Hair is remembering that at 2:30 A.M. I got a call asking me to go up to Columbia when the cops were out. The same night of the play...And to remember that the kid who called me was supposedly a member of the same kind of fun-loving tribal rockettes as those young Americans onstage...I wondered for a while if I would have been sickened by Hair if the kids up there were Australian or French: Yes. No one has the right to remove another's validity as a joke, it's too dangerous for both of them."
And this is, of course, the ultimate truth about Hair: it is every bit as real as, and no more real, than The Desert Song. A backer of the show told me, and this was before the opening, "I think I'll make a fortune. All the tourists want to see what hippies look like, but no one wants to go all the way down to the Village; it's too much trouble and it might be dangerous. Here we've got them all nice and safe and bottled for view on Forty-seventh Street."
And actually, all the damage that Hair had undergone in the change from its autumn opening was, in reality, a blessing. The lack of a burning Vietnam issue removed that reality; the audience didn't have to worry about Claude really being killed. And O'Horgan's camp-fag directing helped even more to direct the attention away from the original anti-war statement that the show wanted to make. And, of course, the greatest blessing was the miscasting of James Rado in the lead. It's just like casting Sandy Dennis in Any Wednesday: we secretly know she's really too young to be thirty, just as we secretly know Rado's really to old to be drafted. And all that those kids want is just affection anyway. And if Grayson Kirk had only been more loving, Columbia University wouldn't have gone.
Many of the critics who had embraced Hair downtown expressed disappointment with the Broadway version, but many more were convinced that Hair signaled the start of something new. I put this to an astute Broadway businessman. "Will Hair change things?" he answered. "You see those lines they had this morning? You better believe Hair's gonna change things." He paused before saying it. "There will now be a spate of shitty rock musicals."
Copyright William Goldman. All rights reserved.