Friday, May 01, 2009

Hair Today -- and Yesterday

Tuning in to the last five minutes of The Late Show with David Letterman, I was pleased to see the cast of the new Broadway revival of Hair performing a couple of the show's signature songs: "Aquarius" and "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine." The performance proved that, more than 40 years on, Hair is still "with it."

Seeing the excerpts on late-night TV, I thought I would dig up the review I once wrote of a 30th anniversary revival of Hair in Washington, D.C. This production (at the Studio Theatre) was unique in its setting. Staged in what were really Studio's rehearsal halls, the audience had to follow the cast around from room to room as the scenes changed, rather than sitting in one place and watching the actors come in and go out.

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in August 1997. As it happens, the production of Hair reviewed here went on to win a Helen Hayes Award for Best Resident Musical for the 1997-98 season.

Studio's Hair Sizzles
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Seldom performed these days, Hair seems as much a period-piece of the Sixties as Anything Goes is a period-piece of the Thirties. Both plays generated a number of songs that made the "Hit Parade" of their eras. From Anything Goes came the title song, "You're the Top," "All Through the Night," "Let's Misbehave," and others. From Hair came its own title song (a hit for the clean-cut family group, The Cowsills, models for TV's Partridge Family), "Easy to Be Hard" (Three Dog Night), "Good Morning, Starshine" (Oliver), "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine" (The Fifth Dimension).

Hair's songs -- music by Galt MacDermot and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado -- have become so much a part of our shared popular culture that it is difficult to imagine how, at the time it opened in 1967, Hair was so innovative, controversial, and shocking. Perhaps that is why, despite its adult subject matter and nudity, this production at Washington's Studio Theatre attracted parents with their children. Considering that in the 1960s, Hair was considered to be rated "XXX", it shows how far along we've come that today's audience includes teenagers dragged along by their Baby Boomer 'rents. (One interesting Hair pair: a father and son with matching ponytails.)

The harsh language and situations that made Hair so shocking 30 years ago are hardly different from what one might find in a typical R-rated summer blockbuster today. Yet somehow Hair manages to rise above the vulgar and mundane to present an almost spiritual message. That may be why, shortly after the play opened on Broadway in 1968, the cast was invited to participate in a worship service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, recorded as "Divine Hair: Mass in F." At that event, the music and lyrics of Hair were interpolated among prayers and readings from the Book of Common Prayer to create a powerful, moving liturgical experience.

That power persists. Luckily for the Studio Theatre, the cast assembled by director Keith Alan Baker for the current production of Hair is vocally superior to the original Broadway cast. Thirty years ago, critics and audiences alike complained that the music was too loud, the lyrics mumbled and muffled, so that understanding what was said was nearly impossible. At the time, that did not matter much, because people went to see Hair for the total "Experience" -- the turning on, tuning out, be-in and love-in of a "tribal rock musical."

Today's audiences expect more, however, and Studio's cast delivers. The songs are articulated clearly and powerfully. Perhaps because of the intimate, environmental setting (a standing-room audience consists of no more than 75 or 80 patrons), it was easy to understand the actors both when they spoke and when they sang. (The intimacy does have its drawbacks, however: it was possible to smell the cast's make-up and to determine that the cigarettes they were smoking were certainly not made of marijuana.)

And the songs are what make Hair great. What little plot there is, is propelled by the music. The songs define the characters even as they define an era. Without the music, Hair would be another forgotten political protest play of the 1960s -- indeed, a play that would never have seen the inside of a Broadway theatre. The songs both make it memorable and give it its energy. It is hard to imagine a more powerful finale to any musical than the "medley" of "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine." No song has ever been written that better portrays the personal hypocrisy of some left-wing political activists than "Easy to Be Hard": "Especially people who care about strangers/Who care about evil and social injustice/Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?/How about a needing friend?"

Hair proved to be a model for hit musicals that followed. An obvious Hair-wannabe was Godspell, Stephen Schwartz's retelling of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Here, too, the cast consisted of brightly-clad "hippies" who lived as a "tribe" and told stories through songs. (In Godspell, the music tended toward the folk-rock rather than the pure rock sound of Hair.) The final scenes of the two plays have too many parallels to be considered a coincidence. Even the last song in each consists of a single lyric repeated over and over (Hair: "Let the sun shine, let the sunshine, let the sunshine . . ." Godspell: "Long live God, long live God, long live God . . .") And Hair set the stage for other successful rock musicals like the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice shows Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.

As anchored in its time as Hair appears, however, its themes are universal and timeless: Should I be loyal to my friends or my country? Will that boy think I'm cute? Why don't my parents understand me? Why won't my children behave? Aristophanes and Shakespeare would not have trouble recognizing the characters and ideas in Hair. (Indeed, Shakespeare provides the lyrics for one of Hair's songs, "What a Piece of Work Is Man.")

It's particularly appropriate that Studio Theatre should mount this 30th anniversary production of Hair, since the lyricists, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, both have Washington roots -- Rado being born here, and Ragni having studied at Georgetown University. Studio Theatre's Hair will live in memory long after the last chords are sounded on the show's last night. It's too bad that the small space at the Studio's Secondstage means that so few people will be able to enjoy this production. The irony, of course, is that in a larger space, the play would not be as good.

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