Baltimore – Aging hippie James Rado is ruminating on hair.
Not hair as in beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen or waxen. Nor even “Hair” as in the 25 year old musical celebration of late 1960’s counterculture, free love and drugs, currently being revived in an 11 city national tour that opened in Baltimore last week. (It reaches Washington’s Warner Theater at the end of March.)
No, he’s explaining why the 10th anniversary production of Hair – the one that opened at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway, “Hair’s” original home – fell as flat as unwashed tresses. “That didn’t work,” he says slowly, brushing his hand through his own longish white mane. “We couldn’t cast that show. We couldn’t find the right people.”
Because their hair was wrong, of course.
For both men and women, it was mostly all short, that 1970’s John Travolta feathered look for men, the Dorothy Hamil bob for women. Something was wrong. Not having long strands to fling about meant a certain kind of wanton joie de vivre was lost, the kind of abandon that provokes one to burn one’s draft card, for example, or attend a be-in.
This time out, for “Hair’s” 25th anniversary, many male cast members have real long hair. Wigs just aren’t that pivotal this time out.
“It’s a different time now,” Mr. Rado says, sitting down for an interview with some young cast members in an upstairs lobby of the Morris A Mechanic Theater.
“It’s coming to the end of the century,” he says. “Young people are extremely brilliant and they want to know what has precede them in this world, and where they are going”.
“Now, the talent is out there. And the consciousness. It’s almost like the old Stanislavsky Method (acting). These people are really into the show. They’re living this show.”
Take Catrice Joseph, the round and sexy Dionne, who does a mean Supreme while extolling the virtues of “White Boys”
This particular day, sitting next to Mr. Rado and one of her co-stars, Luther Creek, 22 she is sporting dredlocks, a nose ring and some kind of Aquarius happy glow.
The New York native is explaining how she came to be in the show. It’s because of her 46-year old sister, New York theatrical booking agent Mary Young, who played Dionne in one of the last cast lineups of the original Broadway production.
Mary had to talk Catrice into joining the cast of the European “Hair” directly from New York University film school.
She convinced me that “Hair” was the show for me,” Miss Josephs relates. “It was my senior year in college and I had never done anything professionally and she said, “Catrice, you have to audition for “Hair.” It’ll change your life.
Besides the obvious liberation the darkly lit and once-controversial nude scene might bring, Miss Joseph claims her stint as a member of the cast – called “the tribe” in the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” – has made her “more open-minded! More free! More loving! To everyone! I have…inner joy doing “Hair”.
And so does Luther Creek, despite his short hair. Mr. Creek plays Claude, the gentle, pivotal “Hair” character who can’t decide whether to avoid the draft.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” he says, “this production that is so involved with spreading love and freedom and happiness and peace and et cetera.”
Mr. Creek’s baby boomer parents attended Abbie Hoffman’s “Confront the War Makers March” in 1967, where protesters attempted to levitate the Pentagon and rid it of the evil spirits – a scene happily recounted in “Hair.”
His parents – mother Patricia of Indianapolis, and father J. Fred Creek, a New Mexico Realtor and Vietnam conscientious objector – are “frighteningly excited” that he’s involved in the production.
“Hair” as much as anything else at that time, was really a part of that culture. It wasn’t simply a show,” he says.
The question is raised as to how relevant “Hair” might be today.
Certainly 1960’s nostalgia is very much with us now – young people are donning caps with a spreading green marijuana leaf, Twiggyesque waif Kate Moss parades on fashion show runways in bell bottoms and platform shoes and rattles her way into our anorexic – prone American hearts. The alternative band the Lemonheads even do a version of the “Hair” tune, “Frank Mills.”
In a strange synergy of the retro and the contemporary, Sean Jenness’ bare-chested take on “Hair’s” lonesome and slightly stupid Woof in this production recalls Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kent Dalian, who plays the wild, take-no-prisoners, tribe pseudo-leader Berger, brings to mind Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.
“Hair” is not just trendy, it’s relevant again, insists Mr. Rado.
While refusing, coquettishly, to give his age, Mr. Rado suggest his $1 million revival does not capitalize on the grunge-fascination with the 1960’s that is so rampant now, nor is it merely a nostalgia trip for baby boomers such as himself. It is, he says vaguely, relevant to Now and the Future.
“I think the fact that it just happens to coincide with the grunge movement has nothing to do with capitalizing on that,” he says. But he admits, in and un-“Hair”-ish way, “Let’s face it, everything is capitalization, it’s a capitalist society.”
Protesting against a capitalist society is what inspired Mr. Rado to write the book and lyrics to “Hair” with his friend Gerome Ragni, who died of cancer in 1991. They gained inspiration through five grubby years living the avant-garde life in the East Village in New York City. Galt MacDermot, 38 at the time, wrote the score; he returns this time out to oversee the music again.
Originally produced in 1967 as part of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, the show opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater in April 1968.
“Hair” was an immediate smash.
“itchy, twitchy and dirty,” the Daily News called it, and Variety harrumphed that the drugged-up, blissed-out, nudie-psychedelic musical was an example of “what the under-30’s think of as honest, daring, imaginative, expressive, entertaining – in short, groovy, if that word isn’t already passé or square.”
Despite those reviews, the show played for more than 1,700 performances; it became one of the longest-running productions in Broadway history, and grossed more than $80 million before closing in 1972. “Hair’s” hit songs are infectious and legendary: “The Age of Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Let the Sunshine In.”
The original production also boosted the careers of many young faces – including Melba Moore, Diane Keaton and a woman named Shelley Plimpton, the original Crissy. Now a Seattle housewife, Ms. Plimpton engaged in a bit of the free-love antics of the time (with cast member Keith Carradine), and the result was Martha Plimpton, the talented Brat Pack actress of “Parenthood” fame.
After the 10th anniversary edition of the show flopped, a small 1990 “bus and truck” production of “Hair” with American actors garnered more success, touring Europe for the last 3 ½ years. For those performances, perhaps tellingly, the average age for audience members was 16.
“We had a feeling that it would come back,” Mr. Rado says. He had a hand in restructuring the European version last year. “I’m very, very proud of where is stands now.”
Theater historians credit “Hair” as groundbreaking for several reasons. First it perfectly captures, in time-capsule fashion, the hippie ethos.
“It was more than just a musical,” New York Times drama
critic David Richards wrote last year. “It was a landmark, a litmus
test, a temptation, a tourist attraction, an eyeful, a kick. And
for a while the country couldn’t get enough of it.
On the other hand, Richard Coe, longtime local theater critic, remembers watching the original Joseph Papp production – before “Hair” officially made it’s Broadway debut – and thinking, “ How are they ever going to revive that?”
He got his answer last week at the Morris Mechanic.
“Moronic,” he says simply, when asked to describe the show.
But second, and perhaps most important, “ Hair” was the first “non-book” musical – a production with a strong storyline, that instead describes a way of life, setting the stage for such future non-book works as “A Chorus Line” and “Cats,” explains Donn B. Murphy, president of the National Theater and theater professor at Georgetown University.
He recalls seeing the show’s first national touring company in March of 1971, when it played an extended stint at the National. The sidewalk of the theater was lined with Astroturf and the front of the theater festooned with daisies.
“Picture this: The cast members joined arms and walked through the audience on the tops of the chairs. There were all these ladies in minks! And these actors walking over them, their crotches in the air above their heads,” he remembers.
“I think “Hair” is still a viable, interesting musical,” he says, adding thoughtfully, “The questions of war and peace have not yet been answered.”
Good songs are always good songs, after all. And
a good line is still a good line. What modern, or for that matter,
historical drama could boast the following exchange:
Jeanie: “How come you never call me?”
Claude: “ Jeanie, you know you don’t have a phone.”
Copyright The Washington Times.