All these felicities made "Hair" an event of theatrical
importance. What made it a hit was the score. MacDermot, a conservatively
dressed Canadian living in Staten Island, at first seemed an odd match for the woolly East Villagers Rado and Ragni. They might
have chosen a more downtown composer like Al Carmines or Lou Reed. But MacDermot has an almost inexhaustible melodic gift; not
just "Hair" but later shows like "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "The Human Comedy" are profligate with irresistibly singable
tunes, 30 or 40 of them. MacDermot put the authors’ baroque lyrics into svelte containers, made the contentious ideas in the songs attractive to a mass audience.
Did he ever! In a time when the pop music audience had
forgotten about Broadway, "Hair" had a slew of radio hits. The Fifth
Dimension’s medley of "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In" went to #1 on the pop charts, #6 on the R&B list and #11 in the U.K. The
show’s title tune, recorded by the Cowsills, reached #2 in the U.S.; Three Dog Night’s "Easy to be Hard," #4; "Good Morning
Starshine," by C & the Shells, #46. Carla Thomas’ version of "Where Do I Go" was an R&B hit (#38), and the Nina Simone
medley of "Ain’t Got No" and "I Got Life," peaked at #2 in Britain. That’s eight songs, in six versions, from one show. The "Hair" LP
was also #1, and it was one of the few productions to spawn a second album of songs rejected from the show; that one was called
"DisinHAIRited," and it made the top 100.
All this should have established rock, or at least MacDermot’s species of pop-rock, as a musical staple on Broadway. The new breed of songwriters — Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Carole King, Joni Mitchell — should have been tapped right then, as a mass transfusion for Broadway’s tired blood. Somehow, it didn’t happen. Maybe the sponsoring angels thought "Hair" a fluke or a freak, disreputable, unreliable, however long it ran. The show closed in the summer of 1972. That fall, MacDermot opened two shows within seven weeks of each other. "Dude," written with Ragni, ran only 16 performances. "Via Galactica," for which Christopher Gore (he later scripted "Fame," with his brother Michael doing the score) wrote the book and lyrics, closed after a week.
"Hair" is now 33 years old — the age that, say, "Porgy
and Bess" was when "Hair" opened. It is an artifact of its age, like lava
and tie-dyed pants. And, in the "Encores!" revival, it begins by sounding creaky. "Aquarius," the show’s opening anthem — glorious as originally sung by pure-voiced, then-teenage Ronnie Dyson — was entrusted to Eric Millegan, who was frequently flat on opening night. "Easy to Be Hard" got a studiously overwrought rendition by Idina Menzel; this pensive lament, which explodes into anguish only during the bridge, was debased into the orgasmicwail of a ’90s diva; Menzel’s inhalations between phrases were louder than a Celine Dion climax. Also, the young cast (was anyone alive in 1968?) didn’t always get to a microphone in time to sing. But I figure some of this was due to novice nerves and technical gaffes; the "Encores!" shows are put together, first rehearsal to closing night, in two weeks.
Gradually, like a stern old bachelor who realizes that he’s fallen in love, I surrendered to the show. As the focus shifts from the raucous Berger to Claude, the lost-soul with the draft notice, "Hair" bares its big brave gooey heart. Creek’s rendition of "Where Do I Go" (the show’s most Broadway-friendly ballad) gives the first act a poignant capper. Miriam Shor is a winsome, sturdy charmer as pregnant Jeannie, and Jessica-Snow Wilson does full justice to "Frank Mills." The trio "White Boys" gets a nice Supremes-style staging from director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall. "What a Piece of Work Is Man" (lyrics by W. Shakespeare) is beautifully sung by Michael Seelbach and Sean Jeremy Palmer, two men with delicately powerful boy-choir voices; I hereby award Seelbach the singing of "Aquarius" in all future performances.
Seven or eight songs not on the original RCA album appear
here, giving further evidence of MacDermot’s skill at composing oratorio
music in a Broadway setting. In fact, the entire piece can be heard as a pop "Passion" (for Claude’s journey from the Jerusalem of the
East Village to the Calvary of Vietnam) or "Requiem" (for the dreams of the "love generation," already dying as the original show
extended its run). "Hair" is a burlesque and a passion play, an act of defiance and a plea for acceptance. Finally, the "Encores!"
revival was every bit as embraceable as the best of its sweeter shows. It evoked the same feelings of exultation and gratitude. I felt sorry for the folks who walked out after the first act; they missed the treat of being on their feet, cheering through their tears, at the end of the second.
Among the many moving moments on the City Center stage,
none was more so than the presence at the keyboards of the 72-year-old
MacDermot, silver-haired and seraphic, his foot tapping to the old songs, his smile broadening at the antics of his spiritual grandchildren — another generation of Broadway troupers and gypsies finding new energy in his music. At the tumultuous curtain call, MacDermot received his own ovation. Then he turned to greet a middle-aged man who had climbed on-stage from the audience; he might have been the one who had criticized Claude in the first act. But it was James Rado, co-author of the book and lyrics, who had originated the role of Claude. (Ragni died in 1991.) Rado and MacDermot, the two rebels from another century, embraced. Then Rado hugged Creek: two Claudes meeting over the decades.
No one watching needed hashish, cocaine or LSD to feel a surge of earned emotion. On opening night, "Hair" was its own high.
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