August 27, 2008

Why The Sun's Still Shining In On "Hair"

Unlike so many baby boomers, I can’t claim a special relationship with the musical Hair. I didn’t see the original production that opened in 1968 and played for 1,750 performances. I didn’t catch the 1977 revival that ran for just 43 performances either. Nor did I see the 2004 benefit concert with Raúl Esparza, Harvey Fierstein, Lillias White and RuPaul. I did rent the 1979 movie directed by Milos Forman but found myself wondering what the fuss was all about. And I walked out of the 2001 Encores! production of the show and totally missed the three anniversary performances that played in Central Park last year. Still, I jumped at the chance to see the Public Theater’s current production in the park when my friend Red Press, the show’s musical contractor, graciously offered to get me house seats.

The new production has gotten rave reviews. Cynics point out that the praise is coming primarily from baby boom-aged critics, eternally nostalgic for their youth. Still, people of all ages are lining up for hours to get tickets for each evening’s performance. Or, according to a recent piece in the New York Times, paying people to stand in line for them. (Click here to read the Times piece.) My sister told me that my niece Jennifer, who was born seven years after the original production closed, was dying to see the show and so I invited her to come with me.

After a tasty and thrifty dinner at Pinch: Pizza by the Inch on Columbus Avenue, where I had a custom made pizza of smoked mozzarella and hot sausage and Jennifer, already model-thin but paying extra attention to what she eats because her boyfriend is coming home from serving in Iraq, had a salad, we headed over to the outdoor Delacorte Theater in the park. The weather this time of year is fickle, with cool evenings often following even the balmiest days so I packed shawls—and we ended up being grateful that we had them. The audience was the usual patchwork quilt of New Yorkers and everyone—including me—seemed to be having a good time. But the moment the first notes of the opening song "Aquarius" sounded, the 50 and 60-year olds in the crowd began to act up: swaying in their seats, mouthing the words to the songs and sometimes even singing aloud.

Hair, as everyone knows, is plotless but centers around a “tribe” of hippies, trying to balance the lures of the sexual revolution, the emerging black power movement, the growing drug culture and rising antipathy towards the unpopular Vietnam War against the conservative ideals of their parents’ generation. It’s a comprehensive catalog of the major trends of its time. And the folks at the Public are taking every opportunity—including references in the Playbill notes and the pre-show turn-off-your-cell-phones announcement—to draw parallels with current events. Although what struck me is how different things are (the war in Iraq grinds on but there is no widespread anti-war movement as there was against the war in Vietnam; and what happened to all that peace and love the original Hair celebrated?).

But what eventually won me over was the music. Galt MacDermot’s tunes are delightfully infectious and Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s lyrics are equally joyful. Hair is arguably the last musical to have so many of its songs cross over onto mainstream culture--everyone from the rock group Three Dog Night to "American Idol's" Jennifer Hudson has recorded the ballad "Easy to Be Hard". My freshman college roommate played the album constantly and I developed a lingering familiarity with the songs even though I had no idea how they fit into the show.

All of the songs are exuberantly performed by the current young cast, lead at the performance we attended by Will Swenson as the charismatic leader of the tribe Berger, Christopher J. Hanke as his conflicted friend Claude, Caren Lyn Manuel as the passionately political Sheila, and Patina Renea Miller as the astrologically-guided earth mother Dionne. They all clearly loved pretending to be hippies, even if they didn’t totally capture the essence of the period. And the oldsters in the audience, even those who themselves never got closer to being hippies than wearing love beads and headbands, seemed to love what they were doing too. Everyone—the kids who discovered granola in the '60s and those who now pay $6 a bag for it at Whole Food—was clearly desperate to reclaim the optimism of that time.

The original production was famous for its nude scene, where the entire cast (with the now legendary exception of a young Diane Keaton) took all their clothes off. They do it in the current production too, although, of course, no one is scandalized now. Instead, the high point of the evening comes during the fully-clad encore of "Let the Sun Shine In" when audience members are invited to come on stage and dance with the cast. It's a prefab happening but so many people raced up to join in that I feared the stage might collapse. Eventually security guards had to turn people away. But there is already talk of moving the show, now extended in the park through Sept. 14, to Broadway so maybe they’ll get their chance then.

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