I saw 2009 Tony Award winning HAIR today. I don’t generally like Broadway musicals — I have a slew of reasons. HAIR, however is no typical Broadway musical. A surprisingly complex reflection on the times in which it was written, Hair is the story of the turbulent 1960s and of a generation fighting to feel alive when death, emotional and physical, seemed to loom around every corner. The soundtrack reflects the variety of musical genres that shaped the 60s — from acid rock to doo-woop, sitar to guitar. The bottom line? I loved it. Yes, give me a head with Hair, long beautiful hair!
About HAIR: An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
HAIR debuted off-Broadway in 1967 before shaking up Broadway in 1968 with its nudity, open discussions of drug use, irreverence for the American flag, and its racially mixed cast. Even by today’s standards, the show is controversial — and that’s not just because of the full-frontal nudity (in 68, the cast turned its naked backsides to the audience… 41 years later, we get the full monty).
Religion, race, sexuality, environmentalism and drugs are all on the table in HAIR. It is a far cry from the Phantom of the Opera. There’s something to go home with from this musical, besides a stellar soundtrack. The sophisticated commentary on the 1960s, the sense that this was a historical moment, is almost too good to have been written without the benefit of hindsight. And it’s amazing how relevant the show and ALL its messages still are.
“How dare they try to end this beauty?/To keep us under foot/They bury us in soot/Pretending it’s a chore/To ship us off to war.”
My mother saw it when it was on Broadway those many years ago and eventually rented the movie for me in middle school, though for some reason we never quite got round to watching it. In high school, my father thought it was clever to wake me up to “Good morning Starshine” off the soundtrack. The 5th Dimension’s famous version of “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine” has been on my iPod for as long as I can remember. Thus, in many ways, HAIR is a musical I grew up, though truth be told, I really didn’t know much about it.
Probably, like most that hadn’t seen the show, I expected HAIR to be a celebration of Love and Peace — a generally bright musical about free love, Timothy Leahy, counter-culture and bell-bottoms. But HAIR is more than an acid rock-musical about the day when “peace will guide our planet and love with steer the stars.”
The guiding narrative is the plight of Claude — a native of Flushing Queens, born into a Catholic home, who is “a genius, genius” that dropped out of school and finds life “dreary dreary.” He’s grown his hair long, borrows his mother’s beads and roams the streets of New York with Berger, Crissy, Dionne, Wolf, Hud and the rest of the hippie Tribe. Nagged by his conservative parents, Claude is caught between life as a free spirit and as a dutiful son of his country. When he’s drafted to go to Vietnam, he is immediately forced to choose — rebellion or submission?
Claude is the sacrificial lamb, representative of all the innocent young men sent to war to die for their nation. All he aspired to do is perform miracles. As a solider, he is unwillingly put on par with America’s most esteemed heroes. He is the son of a Nation defined by war and conquest. If in the first 15 minutes, you haven’t figured out that Claude is an incarnation of Jesus… well, then you’re just not paying attention.
Will Swenson in action as Berger
While Berger perhaps more fully represents the rebellious, free-love attitude of the hippie counter-culture, Claude is the most articulate in explaining what makes his generation different from those before. In a song called “I got Life,” he tells his mother and father that essentially there is np physical different between the children of 1947 and the children of 1967 — the difference is emotional. The children of 1967 have chosen to live, to experience and to challenge.
Claude is portrayed by Gavin Creel, whose voice, magnetism and portrayal of youthful innocence carry the audience through to the final scene. But it’s Will Swenson, who plays his buddy Berger, that steals the show. With his perfect torso (which ended up in my face during the performance — believe me, his torso really is perfect), endless energy, and engaging charm, he’s impossible to ignore.
The second act is centered around Claude’s hallucination after Berger passes him a joint. But as the act moves on, we come to realize that Claude’s vision of war in Vietnam may not be conjured, but may in fact be reality. Lights flash, guns pop until finally, the snow falls and a single light glows. The final song may be Let the Sun Shine, but it turns into a funeral procession. Our hero is fallen and we’re left jarred.
In the end, the audience joins the cast on stage swaying to Let the Sun Shine, revealing in the performances they saw, reeling from the emotional roar of the second act, and ultimately celebrating being alive. Just as the tribe said, Claude went so we didn’t have to.