This is the first stop on the new tour of the production, which is directed by Diane Paulus, with choreography by Karole Armitage and Christine O’Grady, sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Michael McDonald, lighting by Joel Silver, music supervision by Nadia Digiallonardo and starring most of the Broadway cast.
Two actors, Rado and Ragni, began writing Hair in late 1964. One of the people to whom they showed their first draft, Nat Shapiro, put the two together with Canadian composer MacDermot, and the creative “team” was fixed. They did not work as a team, however. As MacDermot later said, “We work independently. ... I prefer it that way. They hand me the material. I set it to music.”
The musical premiered off Broadway in 1967, and its first run was fairly uneven. Then, after considerable revisions and additions — including the song “Let the Sun Shine In” — the show opened on Broadway in 1968 and became a smash hit.
In a review of a lesser John Hughes movie — I think it was Pretty in Pink — Pauline Kael said it wasn’t really about teenagers, but was what pre-teens probably thought it was going to be like being a teenager. A similar distinction might be made concerning Hair and the counter-culture of the 1960s.
Like the counter-culture itself, Hair is organized around two, often contradictory visions: a movement celebrating life and all its pleasures, and a movement seeking to end the U.S. military presence in Vietnam and, ideally, all war. It is usually supposed, and it is the assumption of Hair, that the two movements were composed of the same people, but that was not my experience. The life-celebrating, pot-smoking, free-loving, wild-dancing and gaudy-dressing people who came to be known as “hippies” were not at all the same people as the clear-eyed, austere militants who sought to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam — although, of course, when there was a mass demonstration in the works, the former were recruited to make up the bulk of the marchers, so long as it could be sold to them as a kind of party.
Hair is not so much what it was like being a hippie, but what some very talented and open-minded young New York theater people thought it would be like if they were hippies.
“All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer,” Ernest Hemingway said, “is that if his work should last, you will have to skip the politics when you read it.” This is certainly true of Hair and its anti-war message. Nor can the musical be taken as a historically accurate portrait of hippie culture and lifestyle.
Gilbert Shelton’s comic-book heroes, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, were much closer to how it was. (“Dope,” Freewheelin’ Franklin said, “will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.”) For, after all, as Geoffrey O’Brien notes in his extraordinary memoir of the 1960s, Dream Time, “Drugs were the fundamental text. If you had not read the book, you couldn’t participate in the discussion that followed.” Which is doubtless what Robin Williams meant when he said: “If you remember the ‘60s, you probably weren’t there.”
Hair is still very much worth seeing, however, but not because of its continued “relevance.” It is worth seeing because it is an amazingly exciting and satisfying theatrical experience. The songs are all good, and some are immortal. The spirit of the place is contagious. You find yourself half-believing, then three-quarters. You know it’s all going to come to grief, but still ... . Anyway, relevance has always had dubious entertainment value. “Gimme a head with hair/Long beautiful hair.”