Westport, Conn. - In its guide to the current theater in London, The Illustrated London News has this to say about a production of hair now running there: "Though it is as noisy as it was in 1968 and though it is performed and sung with similar goodwill, this American tribal love-rock musical is now an exhibit curiously and irretrievably dated." At first glance, one would be hard put to find a more accurate, succinct appraisal of another current production of Hair, this one playing at the Westport County Playhouse following a tour of other summer theaters.
At Westport the music is infectious as always and the cast, one of whom was in the original Broadway company and others of whom have played it before, is giving it an energetic production. But as everyone knows, 1968 is now virtually ancient history. Cultural historians have pointed out that rarely has there been a social transition as abrupt as the one between the late '60s and the early '70s. Changes which ordinarily take 10 to 20 years seem to have occurred in five or six. Both the threat and the promise of a few short years ago seem to have dissipated.
The threat was that campus riots and youthful rebellion would go on forever with increasing violence and acrimony, but to everyone's relief the pitch of agitation has quieted considerably. It must be acknowledged that part of this is due to certain battles on the part of the young having been won. Whether we like it or not, long hair and informal dress are now a permanent part of the scene.
The promise was that the flower children and the love generation would bring new peace, new truth and new beauty to the land - the "greening of America," it was called. But much of the promise went unfulfilled. Love-in concerts were marred by ugly violence, several rock stars died from various forms of hard living at the peak of their powers and hard drugs turned out to be too much a part of the youth scene. There has been disillusionment on the part of young people themselves as to what throwing flowers into a crowd or turning on to drugs can actually accomplish.
Hair was closely identified with that past. And indeed it is "irretrievably dated," both in its topical references and in much of its general tone. But it is worth looking at again for fresh insights into why it was such a phenomenon of its time. After opening on Broadway in 1968, it went on to become the seventh longest running musical in Broadway history, and internationally, its producers claim, the most successful musical of our day. In the six and a half years since it opened it has been seen by nearly 30 million people around the world. At one point the combined gross from the companies playing in the U.S. alone was $400,000 a week.
No doubt the chief reason for its success was that it summed up so perfectly the mood of its time, providing the young with a rallying point and the old with a voyeuristic glance at what was going on. Looking at it now, however, one becomes aware of two strong undercurrents which pervade the piece. The first is the exhilaration of the form. Hair has practically no plot; rather it moves from song to song with a kind of improvisational air. Vignettes are interspersed here and there, but there is never too long a period before we go into another number. There are, in fact, over 30 songs, nearly twice the number of the usual Broadway show. Aside from the antiestablishment themes, the form itself gets under your skin and has a remarkable effect, providing subliminally a sense of freedom and release as it moves easily from one number to the next.
A second element operating below the surface is not so pleasant. At the opening of the play, as well as at other points, performers come into the audience to elicit responses from individual spectators. Sometimes this is harmless, but at other times unequivocally antagonistic. The net effect is a good-natured but relentless campaign of intimidation, the sub-text of which is that those on stage are uninhibited free spirits while those in the audience are frightened, uptight conformists.
The astonishing thing is that the audience at Westport played along with this charade so completely. Some put-downs were clever and to the point, but others were not, and the passivity of the audience in the face of these suggests either that they were turned off and didn't want to show it, or wanted desperately to be with it, to be hip. Both responses betray a lack of security among the spectators and indeed this may be partly what Hair is all about. Both on stage and in the audience there is a marked lack of certainty as to who the two parties are in the battle of generations. The play is almost a testimony to insecurity, striking out randomly at anything and everything. And among older members of the audience one detects a strong sense of guilt. Many parents think they have failed their children in some way, but since they have so little notion of why or how they have failed, and concomitantly, of where they have actually succeeded, they sit there and take all the barbs thrown at them, unable to separate the relevant accusations from the preposterous ones.
It has been said that Americans have a strong streak of masochism or self-flagellation in them - an inheritance from our Puritan forebears. In the old days evangelists preaching hell-fire and brimstone and reminding us of our utter worthlessness provided the instrument. Today perhaps Hair has a touch of that mixed in with the music and good humor. perhaps that is one element in it which fascinates the older generation.
On another level there is the sense of shared insecurity between old and young. Outwardly the two generations appear to be at odds, but at a performance of Hair one sees that beneath the differences they are signaling to one another that neither has a clear sense of identity nor of self. Hair is unquestionably dated, but in a way that an audience in London or elsewhere might not understand, in America there are elements of it which remain very much with us.
Copyright The Wall Street Journal.
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