SAY New York
Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni
and James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Diane Paulus
Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Admission Free
Entrances: 81st Street at Central Park West or 79th Street at 5th Avenue
Reviewed by David Spencer
(Note: the lateness of this review occurs because ticket demand for this engagement was so high that the noble press reps at the Public could not accommodate certain outlets until the extension. But given that success, this review may not be a post mortem just yet...)
Every decade or so has its era defining works of drama, works that marked turning points in social awareness, but the late-50s through early 70s seems to have more than the usual share—and my guess is because that's when taboos that had been taken for granted as immutable began crumbling on a regular basis; when all kinds of groups—ethnic, gender-defined, orientation-defined, class-defined—were openly seeking, fighting for and/or achieving liberation and mainstream acceptance. And each one of those demanded its moments in the entertainment spotlight.
Oftentimes what signifies the first in line for any of these breakthroughs is what I call the primer (in the educational, not the explosive, sense, although come to think of it, both apply). By this I mean it educates you about the basics. JP Miller's Days of Wine and Roses is really about the everyman and alcoholism: it dramatizes the textbook pathology and the Alcoholics Anonymous route to recover; The Boys in the Band, by Mart Crowley, is about a gathering of homosexuals with a "one from column A, one from column B" strategy, illustrating the various subculture archetypes. Similarly, Lorraine Hansbury's A Raisin in the Sun served up social archetypes for Afro-Americans and the different ways they dealt with—or rejected—assimilation into mainstream, white-controlled society.
And then there's 1968's Hair. Which is currently having a spectacularly successful extended run at the Delacorte in Central Park, where it is the second free offering of the Public Theatre's Summer series. (No official word as to whether or not it will transfer to, or be remounted for, an open-ended run—traditionally the Public is cagey about such announcements until after the free Summer run is over—but it seems among the more likely projections one might venture in an uncertain business.)
Hair was a direct outgrowth of the hippie movement in the mid-60s, and like the hippie movement, it's kind of a grand mess. It has almost nothing in the way of coherent story structure, it celebrates both a plea for world peace (remember, it emerged during the Vietnam war, when the draft was in full swing and thousands of young men were being sent to meaningless deaths in the name of a cause that had increasingly less justification as it dragged on), which was noble if simplistically wrought; it cried out for equality and acceptance of diversity of minorities, both sexual and ethnic; and—here's where it gets fuzzy-minded—it celebrated slacker-dom: not getting a job, not thinking about one's future, bumming off parents indefinitely. Youth is hip, over-30 is prone to be square (or worse) and tripping out on drugs is a good thing.
Floating in and around all this is the slender filament of a story about Claude, who has just received his draft notice, and whether or not he'll burn his draft card, along with all his other Uncle Sam'ed hippie pals, and flee to Canada. The rest of the hippie types are, in keeping with the primer approach, a diverse collection of archetypes, but none of them terribly deep or interesting, because in the end they're all about love, man. So conflict is all but non-existent (save for cameo confrontations with establishment types, like the two-dimensional buzz-killers presented as Claude's parents.)
The best of the songs are, of course, the familiar ones that became not only standards, but unofficial national anthems of the era—"Age of Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In"—and while many of Galt MacDermot's melodies retain a surprisingly sturdy (and perhaps ironically "mainstream") tunefulness all these years later...the lyrics of James Rado and Gerome Ragni (co-authors of the thin, inane and almost incoherent libretto), are less durable. When they're not in radio pop-song mode, they substitute shock for character, and do so with almost numbing frequency. And even the shock is silly, because it's nothing but lists of terms meant to be in your face. One hippie into sexual liberation asks of a priest:
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
A black guy tells us:
A black nigger
A jungle bunny
Pickaninny mau mau
Little Black Sambo
A guy who's just high on life tells us why:
I got my
I got my head
I got my brains
I got my ears
I got my eyes
I got my nose
I got my mouth
I got my teeth
I got my tongue
I got my chin
I got my neck
I got my tits
I got my heart
I got my soul
I got my back
I got my ass...
And of course the title song:
Long beautiful hair
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
As Ed Kleban used to say, list songs tend to list, and Hair is so overburdened with them as to be exhaust the truly attentive ear. Not so much a musical as controlled chaos—combination of a rock concert and a peace-in—Hair is about as puerile as it can be.
So how has it survived the decades?
Because a number of people have worked hard at giving it periodic transfusions. Several years after its long Broadway run ended, a revival of the same production was mounted at the same theatre (the Biltmore) and closed only a few weeks later. Tom O'Horgan's production had become quaint, almost embarrassing. And sloppy. Precisely because of its "oh how freeee" rejection of convention, it was a notoriously ill-maintained show, and the revival seemed to have picked up where the long run left off. But the 1979 Milos Forman film version, whose screenplay by Michael Weller went a long way toward making more rsonant dramatic sense of the stage play's sketchy bare bones, showed that Hair could stay afloat if viewed very much and specifically as a document of its era, without any pretense at claiming that its counterculture ethos is timeless. Surviving authors Galt MacDermot and especially James Rado started to carry that torch as well, supervising various productions between then and now.
And now it's director Diane Paulus's turn. At the Delacorte Theatre, Hair dances nimbly on the edge between parody and sincerity. It's almost as if the "love tribe" has emerged through a time portal in the evening mist—and yet not quite—for there is only the faintest hint of a wink toward individual archetype as each flower child introduces him- or herself. And because these types aren't organic to our time, but rather recreated for our time, the acting is sharper than in decades past; less prone to wallow in self-indulgence or, indeed, degrade with time in a longer run, because the actors are creating a stylized illusion, rather than presenting the audience a semi-documentary glimpse of who they really may be when the show's over. In many cases, revivals of musicals, no matter how lovely, fall short of the original production somehow, for missing the energy of an iconic performance, the pure sensibility of the time, innocence, nuance, whatever. But with Hair, it seems that improvement with restatement is its only recourse. Otherwise it plays like one of those bad 70s movies that everybody went crazy for at the time and that now can't even earn a DVD release.
The cast is rock solid, or should I say solid, man, and if I single none out, it's because a correct sense of large ensemble permeates the air. To say nothing of the hair. Musical direction too, is vivid and crisp (Nadia Digiallonardo) as well as choreography (Karole Armitage) and sound design (Acme Sound Partners).
Does Hair still speak to our time as it did to its own? Well, I suppose, mildly, if you want to equate Iraq to Vietnam and the shared sentiment that we ought to get outta there. Other than that, no, but it doesn't matter. By and large it's a visceral experience, thinking about it too deeply negates the rush of primal catharsis it hopes to inspire, it's a happening, man, and when it's all done you can, yes it's true, bound onstage and shake your booty with the cast as the band rocks out. And if I didn't, that's only because someone needs to represent the tradition of the squares, every now and again...