That Old Feeling: 'Hair' Today

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"Hashish! Cocaine! Heroin! LSD!" the tribe shouted out in a benign yet forceful communal stupor. They shouted out other words, of four and twelve letters and, at the end of the first act, took off all their clothes. What could the opening night audience at the Biltmore Theatre have thought on April 29, 1968, when they saw this bizarre creature sired by composer Galt MacDermot and actor-lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado? Was the reaction of the suits (back then every man wore a suit to the theater) shock? outrage? angina? Probably not, since the show got critical raves, generated several hit songs and ran for four years — and since, by the end, even the traditional Broadway audience must have understood the innocent, hopeful nature of a musical that celebrated, in another famous tribal chant, "Peace! Power! Freedom! Happiness!" It seemed like the first cry of an infant destined to change the course of musical theater.

On May 3, 2001, another group of theater lovers filed into Manhattan's City Center to see a new production of "Hair," this season's third and final production in the renowned "Encores!' series of classic musicals revived in concert form. ("Hair" plays just six performances, the last one Monday evening.) Presenting revivals of such classics and oddities as "Wonderful Town," "Strike Up the Band" and "Do-Re-Mi," the series has wowed audiences with pristine scores and showmanship on a shoestring. Typically, the performers enter in evening wear and hold the script in their hands; Rob Fisher's 30-piece orchestra bursts into some gorgeous old tune, and the crowd levitates in rapture. For the past eight years, it's been one of the very best reasons to be alive in New York.

The "Encores!" audience is devoted and fiercely protective. It loves the old shows, in part because they have terrific music, in part because they're rare, in part because they're old. They might have preferred a show called "Toupée." So a current of anxiety riffled the air at "Hair." The usual tiered stage, elegant in its simplicity, was replaced by erector-set scaffolding. Fisher's band was just 10-strong, and there wasn't a tux in sight. The cast members appeared — how young they looked! And instead of the usual ingratiating gaze across the footlights from an "Encores!" ingenue, these kids sent out intimidating stares like shock waves. Within the first ten minutes, one of the lead actors (Tom Plotkin, as the studly Berger) had stridden downstage and dropped his trousers, revealing a tight pair of jockey shorts.

In the auditorium the animosity was palpable. Some of the ladies and gents stared at Plotkin as if he had just pissed on a statue of Lorenz Hart. It was exactly the response you would find in an all-teen crowd forced to sit through, say, "Wonderful Town" — sullen dismissal across the generation gap (I almost said generation gasp). At the end of some of the early numbers, there was a sticky few seconds of silence before the requisite applause began. Some people, I felt sure, clapped mainly out of sympathy. Others had no sympathy at all, or more pressing engagements; they left at intermission. By their lights, "Hair" was a four-letter word.

Well, to heck with them. First — as Claude (Luther Creek), the hero of "Hair," says to a carping matron (actually another cast member) who climbs out of the audience to criticize his way of life — "This is 1968, dearie, not 1948." Second, considering the supreme pleasure "Encores!" has provided over the years, audience members should have felt obliged to offer up just one squirmy night. Third, they've sat through a lot of musicals with inane librettos; the point is always the score, and MacDermot's was and remains rich and seductive by any musical standards. And finally, the "Hair" premiere built from initial gaucherie to theatrical assurance to thrilling fulfillment of the "Encores!" premise and promise: that it would bring alive grand old shows, as they were, in all their naivete or insolence. If we see the aching joints, we also hear a heart that, through changes of fashion, still beats strong.

For a half-century before "Hair," Broadway musicals were almost exclusively the kind the most conservative "Encores!" audience enjoys: shows that embellished the vernacular established by Jerome Kern and his first prime collaborators Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. Composers had long, golden careers — Richard Rodgers' spanned six decades, from 1920 to '79 — but by the late '60s the time was long past since they created songs the nation couldn't help singing. Rock 'n roll had been around for more than a decade and, thanks to the Beatles and their kin, had grown up and was expanding in variety and sophistication. Its prime audience of young people was growing up too; they could now afford tickets to Broadway shows (back then, $10 for the best seat). And they would go, if they could hear something fresher than the museum music that still dominated the American stage.

Enter "Hair," kicking and screaming. It was more than a break from what came before; it was a seismic rupture. In one vital blast, "Hair" presented Broadway's first rock score, its first glimpse of the protest and group-grope generation, its first effusion of obscene words (had anyone before on stage referred to Abraham Lincoln as the "emanci-muthafuckin-pator of the slaves"?). "Hair" challenged, confronted, taunted and talked at its audience — the musical equivalent of the Yuppies' confrontation of the Chicago cops at that year's Democratic convention. It celebrated sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, mocked traditional family, politics and religion. A pregnant hippie takes a toke and proclaims: "As Mary Magdalene once said, 'Jesus, I'm getting stoned!'"

In form, or really, formlessness, the show was both revolutionary and reactionary. It discarded the traditional musical's careful structure, in which dialogue leads naturally and naturalistically into song, for a loosy-goosey confection of banter and ballads, most of them sung at the audience rather than to a partner on stage. In this sense, "Hair" is a direct descendent not only of Kern's Princess Theatre shows in the 1910s but of the smart cabaret-style revues of the '50s. Rado's and Ragni's lyrics owed as much to Allen Ginsberg as to Ira Gershwin — they took their beat from the Beat Generation. One sweet song, "Frank Mills," has not a single rhyme; another is mostly initials, a third a list of racial epithets, a fourth a parody, in black-girl sass, of the Gettysburg Address. Still others go off on psychedelic verbal tangents, as if a free soul were following the White Rabbit down the hole into inspiration or insanity.

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