The wonderfully unruly 'Hair' is still a blowout 42 years after its Broadway debut
By Peter Marks
Friday, October 29, 2010
"Hair," the musical that turned the counterculture into a hippie-dippy chorus line, has planted itself at the Kennedy Center for a spell -- and what an exhilarating frug down memory lane it proves to be. Bolstered by a frisky young cast, the show uncorks the effervescent innocence of an age when young people dared to imagine that war and hatred could be drummed out of the world by the irresistible rhythms of love.
We know how effective that plan was. Still, there's a natural high in returning to the psychedelic cradle where flower power was born. Some of the songs by Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado do retain their shock value: "Sodomy," for example, is a recitation of terminology for X-rated acts; another number, sung by a black actor, runs through a list of African American epithets and stereotypes. And the melodic celebrations of the mystical properties of pot and LSD predate an era far more pragmatic about the scourge of drugs.
By and large, however, time seems to have mellowed the outrageousness of "Hair," so much so that in 2010 -- 42 years after its debut on Broadway! -- even the sequence in which the entire cast disrobes seems more redolent of sweetness than scandal.
This Tony-winning revival, directed with verve and intelligence by Diane Paulus, was first presented as a free event in Central Park by the Joseph Papp Public Theater and then moved to Broadway in early 2009. It is launching its national tour with the month-long engagement in the center's Opera House. In some ways, it's the best version yet. The scenes of social satire -- featuring the dandy Josh Lamon and Allison Guinn as perfect squares from the over-30 generation -- exude a mocking sharpness to which they've only previously aspired.
And the other actors fully develop the symbiotic connectivity befitting America's self-styled Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Paris Remillard's Claude, whose receipt of a draft card for induction into the military sparks the show's only linear plot, makes for an endearingly conflicted hero, and Steel Burkhardt gives "Hair's" raucously aimless Berger the requisite subversive dynamism. Kacie Sheik's adorable Jeanie -- the flaky naif who's big with somebody's child -- is a comedic standout, while Phyre Hawkins powers pleasingly through some of the evening's biggest numbers, the classic "Aquarius" among them.
The technical challenge of making the lyrics of the boisterous score completely discernible remains to be conquered. "Hair" needs to be big and loud, but an audience wants to hear the words. Many of them in the chorus numbers are swallowed up by the 10-member rock and brass band, and so in songs such as the buoyantly cross-racial "White Boys" and "Black Boys" and the hauntingly antiwar "Three-Five-Zero-Zero," the impact is frustratingly muted.
Some may perceive attempts to equate the anti-Vietnam War sentiments of "Hair" to events in the present day. But while it is true that the United States is again enmeshed in controversial wars in Asia, the circumstances prompting the show's rebellious acts feel as if they bear only tangential resemblance to modern America. (This production seems almost at times to soft-pedal the work's hostility toward American institutions; a vigorously up-tempo version of the song slamming flag-worship, "Don't Put It Down," obscures the number's acidic tone.)
The pivotal difference is that in "Hair's" time, many young men who wound up as soldiers in a widely unpopular conflict did not go as volunteers. Potential conscripts like the hippies of "Hair" formed a coalition of the unwilling, and it was often the case that resistance to the war came from a highly personal sense of threat.
This urgent link plays out successfully in the final numbers of Act 1, as the members of the cast move up the aisles and gather onstage, chanting the exquisite notes of "Hare Krishna." One by one, the men pull out selective service notices and drop them into a flaming barrel: this tribe's fire ritual. The scene culminates in Remillard's touching rendition of the soft-rock "Where Do I Go," an articulation of Claude's ambivalence toward overt defiance of the establishment. Unlike Berger, he's not quite prepared to turn on, tune in and drop out.
While the musical dips back into Claude's story from time to time, it unfolds more often like a rock vaudeville, segueing from protest song ("Air") to folk ballad ("Easy to Be Hard") to self-defining anthem ("I Got Life"). Designer Michael McDonald dresses the cast in vests with fringe, bell-bottom jeans and headbands, emblematic of a time when it was normal to walk around in costume. Karole Armitage's vibrant, do-your-own-thing choreography steers gratifyingly clear of '60s cliches. And Scott Pask's set and Kevin Adams's lighting aid in the impression the evening creates of an open-air happening.
So don't be shy; come join this most excellent be-in. "I got freedom, brother!" Claude sings as his parents look on, mortified. Time and again, "Hair" reminds you of the rush that comes with exuberant declarations of independence.
Music by Galt MacDermot, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography, Karole Armitage; set, Scott Pask; costumes, Michael McDonald; lighting, Kevin Adams; music director, David Truskinoff; sound, Acme Sound Partners. With Darius Nichols, Matt DeAngelis, Caren Lyn Tackett. About 2½ hours.
'Hair' is back in style
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, October 22, 2010
Break out the beads, the bell-bottoms and the protest signs.
More than 40 years after the Summer of Love, "Hair" is again flowing, and it's coming to a place one might never expect: the Kennedy Center.
The electric, druggy opus of the Age of Aquarius - which debuted on Broadway in 1968 as a sexed-up, rock-and-roll reflection of the everything-goes mores of '60s youth - is in the midst of a renaissance.
"The '60s have been through this period of being put away; we got very cynical about the possibility of a counterculture movement making change," says Diane Paulus, who directed the Public Theater's much-buzzed-about revival in 2008 in New York's Central Park and then on Broadway.
Speaking by phone during a break from rehearsals from the national tour that kicks off Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, Paulus explains that somehow, the show's spirit of activism simply began to resonate again. "What this production has done is say, 'Remember this? This was in our [recent] past, and this is who we were. They loved their country so much that they felt the need to speak up for what they thought it should stand for.' "
The success of the revival could well be attributed to timing; the show arrived in New York months before the presidential election in 2008, as Americans seemed at the tipping point with their frustrations over war, the economy and the environment.
And among younger generations, who hasn't wondered what it might have been like to come of age in the '60s, listening to Jimi and Janis, trekking to Woodstock, speaking out against racism, war and the man, all in the same breath?
"I grew up my whole life feeling like I missed my decade," says Paulus, whose teen years fell squarely in the early 1980s. "I marched for the ERA and lobbied for Planned Parenthood and nuclear disarmament," she says. "So to work on 'Hair' was this incredible opportunity to bring to life not the cliche version of that decade, but really what it meant to be a young American, with all the fear and dreams and hopes of that time. That was my chance."
To make sure audiences feel the good vibrations, the actors in "Hair" break the "fourth wall," interacting with audience members, traversing both the stage and the crowd. "There's something about 'Hair' and the way that it's constructed and the music, that on a fundamental level, you feel alive," Paulus says. "That's why people go to the theater."
James Rado wrote the show with his friend Gerome Ragni while still a young man himself. The son of a State Department employee, Rado grew up in Washington, attended Anacostia High School and graduated from the University of Maryland. It wasn't until he moved to New York to pursue his theatrical ambitions that he first laid on eyes on them: the hippies.
"We were living the lifestyles of young guys, actors, going to agents, trying to get jobs," Rado says by phone from New York. Both men wanted to write a musical that would land them on Broadway, and both saw that the hippie movement "was dramatic, and prominent, and startling," Rado says. "It was amazing to see guys with long hair, for one thing. We wanted to know what it was all about."
So he and Ragni embarked on a mission to get to know the hippies - "we went into their midst," he says, Jane Goodall-like. And they were embraced.
You can hear a touch of reverence for that culture in Rado's voice. He is still at work perfecting the 40-year-old script, restoring elements that the pair wrote in the 1960s to enhance the musical's plot today. "It works like gangbusters," he says, "but I can make it be even better."
"It's all part of the 'Hair' experience," he explains. "As Gerry Ragni once said, 'Hair still grows, you know.' "