& James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Diane Paulus
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
At the Oriental Theatre, Chicago
It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
– Hunter S. Thompson
We all have our quibbles with Hair: some people don’t like the nudity (get bent, square!), some people don’t like the drugs (who’s forcin’ you to take ‘em, Spiro?); me?—I have my reservations about its inception. It was written by two guys in the theater business who really didn’t have anything to do with the scene. It’s a couple of outsiders appropriating what the kids were doing, who ended up making a bundle off of it. And the guy writing the music was old school – had a wife and kids, not exactly a cutting-edge rock ‘n’ roller (who at the time would probably have used that cutting edge to cut some lines of coke). But maybe that’s okay – heck, maybe it’s good. Maybe being on the outside gave these cats some perspective the guys who were completely submerged in the whole movement didn’t have. And besides, if we really want to read an inside account of the Freak Power scene, we always have good ole Hunter.
And moreover, taken just as it is, it’s a great goldurn show. It’s vivacious. Utterly. The youngness on stage is palpable; these actors are so full of energy and youth and vigor, you’re surprised they don’t explode from enthusiasm. And enthusiasm, as we all know, is quite contagious – especially when splattered all over your face. Beyond that, what they’re singing, dancing, and hollering about is being young and alive in 1967 – and all the liberation, frustration, and depravity that goes along with that. The liberation from old norms; the frustration of growing up; the depravity of Vietnam . . . . There are some very famous – and very good – tunes in the piece. Some real foot-stompers. And some in-your-face, you’re-gonna-take-it-and-like-it songs about hot-button issues of the times: racism, the draft, miscegenation. Songs like “Black Boys/White Boys,” “Yes, I’s Finished on Y’alls Farmlands” and “Abie Baby” (in which Abe Lincoln is portrayed by a black woman) were pretty far-out at the time, and remain somewhat uncomfortable, to a certain extent, today. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, so long as you’re American, a black man singing “Yes, I’s finished . . . pluckin’ y’all’s chickens” should make you a little uneasy. But by forcing the audience to experience such heavy racism – to view blacks through racist whites’ eyes – it confronts us with our own racial insensitivities. The show is, in some ways, an exorcism.
And it’s carried off well. The tribe is strong. Steel Burkhardt, Paris Remillard, Caren Lyn Tackett and Kacie Sheik (Berger, Claude, Sheila and Jeanie) are stand-outs amongst a stand-out ensemble. Really, you couldn’t ask for better people to be doing this show. And, keeping in the spirit with the original production, they do involve the audience – just another boundary that this piece of theater pushed.
The musicians are all stellar, too – and some of them (particularly the Neil Young-esque bass player) look like they might have been around for the original production. That only means they have more chops than the younger kids, though, and they use them well. They blend into each style thrown at them: funk, doo-wop, and of course rock and roll – although for 1967 there was a little too little fuzz, for my taste. In fact, when the musical opened, the old guard composers like Bernstein didn’t like the music at all, and the contemporary musicians (e.g. Lennon, Fogerty) found that the music didn’t go far enough – which meant it was just about right for the public-at-large (after all, Metal Machine Music is not for everyone). And as much a fan as I am of far-out music (right down to the primal screams on “Mother” and the meandering Bitches Brew), I think the writers made a good move: not only did they make the show more accessible, they also, instead of making the show a purely rock ‘n’ roll thing, made it more dynamic and ultimately, for a musical, interesting. (Full disclosure: I’ll put on Shaved Fish a million times before I break the seal on an original cast recording of Working. I’m just a rock and roll kind of guy.) The various genres coursing through the show, with some songs’ genres reflecting their text, make for an overall better experience.
The sets, lighting, sound, and especially the costumes are all stellar. They remind us of how great (Crimean-style jackets and homemade bellbottoms with the Stripes patched into ‘em) – and how bizarre (way-out furs and sarongs) – 60s fashion was. The props are great, too – if the joints they rolled weren’t authentic (please say yes), they sure smelled right.
Although Hair doesn’t have the urgency it would have even three years ago, it’s still a wonderful and humanizing piece of entertainment. And it still deals with issues that have not gone away in America. It’s a show both Flower Children, and the children of Flower Children, will enjoy. And, if you’re so inclined, engaging in the spirit of the show with a family bowl beforehand would not be frowned upon.
Schedule and prices at www.broadwayinchicago.com.
 I say this because of the still-subversive nature of such an act, not out of some facile “drugz r gud!” rave.
Another perspective on Hair by Tom Williams
In late 1968-69, I became familiar with Hair for several reasons: by that time I had seen many Broadway musicals both in Chicago and in NYC so Hair was another new show to see and because I knew someone in the cast. Over the course of the run of Hair at the old Shubert Theatre I saw Hair 8-10 times or more. I witnessed the extreme reactions that the show garnered from different audiences.
Early performances brought many walkouts – some shouting their disapproval out loud of the language, subject matter; some resisted the partial burning of the American flag (which happened only a few times). Many just shook their heads in disbelief. But, I believe that everyone left the show changed – affected – exhilarated – troubled – and, of course, thoroughly entertained. Once audiences got over or acclimated to the ground-braking attacks on the social norms of the establishment in the show, they witnessed a mesmerizing pop/rock high-energy Broadway musical that was a life-altering and musical theatre event that changed the rules. Broadway would never be the same. Like Showboat, like Oklahoma, like West Side Story, Hair broke barriers and moved the art in new directions. I can’t remember another musical having such a profound affect on audiences?
I have mixed memories of the show but, indeed, I was moved by the experience of Hair. I was in the Illinois Army National Guard and I didn’t do drugs, nor protest and I was an establishment member working as a sales rep., yet I was totally taken by the message of personal freedom that took me years before I made the decision to march to the beat of my own drummer. That is the message I got from Hair – never just conform – always challenge, do your own thing.
I also learned to appreciate risk-taking theatre, bouncy pop/rock scores and high-energy performers. So when I saw the 2011 National tour of Hair, I was impressed by how much of the original production was maintained and how Hair still resonates with audiences. For me it was pure nostalgia; for young folks it may be a curiosity piece; but for all it is a manic, engaging love festival with a terrific infectious score. Who can resist? This respectful production tries hard (a tad too hard) to entice audiences at the beginning but once it gains momentum, audiences are thrilled. I’d advise young folks like I did with Will Fink (whose above review of Hair was excellent) to understand that Hair captured the tribulations of discontent of the 60’s through satire, sarcasm and music utilizing the sheer energy of youngsters in a manner that only live theatre can capture. The show got us stimulated and that is a valid role for the performing arts in a society. My mind was racing back to those wild times when our fears and dreams were threatened with uncertainty. Most of us made little changes that cumulatively changed the world. I believe that Hair stimulated some youngsters to make a difference. I know it sure entertained us. The 2011 National Tour of Hair sure rocks!