Hair - Conceptual Bliss 20 June 2009

A friend of mine saw the Broadway revival of Hair yesterday. It's one of my favourite shows so I emailed her for her update - I'd seen it and wanted to know what she thought.

Hair is a show I discovered in a backwards way, much like many others who remember the music from their youth and childhood in the 70's.

Long before I understood or was even aware of what a Broadway show was, I fell in love with the songs - not the score but the hit songs, not from the original cast album but from three hit cover versions, all of which I still love. The Fifth Dimension did 'Aquarius / Let The Sun Shine In', Three Dog Night did 'Easy To Be Hard' and Oliver (what ever happened to him /them) did 'Good Morning Starshine' - all staples on American radio during the 70's. As I got older and became more interested in theatre and discovered the show that the songs came from. But to be honest, Hair seemed more like a concept than a stage show. I never really understood, from what I read, exactly what Hair was all about, or if there was indeed any sort of storyline. It was never described in that way, the descriptions always seemed to be about hippies or it being a revolutionary groundbreaking show with nudity and hit songs.

Then in 1979 came the Milos Foreman film. This was my first proper introduction to all the songs in the show. I became obsessed with it for a while. I had the film soundtrack on heavy rotation and dismissed the Broadway cast album for its rawness of sound and delivery. It sounded small and insignificant to my young ears, unlike the full 'produced' movie soundtrack which was very slick. This lead me to further investigate the original production but again I couldn't make heads or tails of any original plot or storyline although there was an occasional mention that it was changed for the movie so I figured there had to be one.

Fast forward to London in the early 00's. The tiny well respected Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London was producing a new revival. It had been a while since there was a proper London revival of Hair. Adding to that we were post 9/11 in a mostly unpopular war, there was 'young director to watch' Daniel Kramer at the helm and they were updating it to present day. Although those facts were interesting, none really mattered as I was only interested in seeing Hair with its original storyline.

I loved the production. There were only two rows stretched out the length of the space, a very small band tucked off to one end of the playing space, excellent performances and singing and one of the most powerful endings I have ever experienced in theatre. What was different was the Hud, traditionally played by an African American male, was played as an Afro Caribbean woman without loosing any of the characters gruff traits and there was a strong gay element in many of the scenes and characters. Dialogue was obviously altered to make it relevant as well as the general look of the show. The nudity remained and being in such close proximity to the actors made me think that this must of been what it felt like to see the original production - these days nudity doesn't have the same power to shock as it once had.

Because it had the three news worthy aspects, this production had a fair amount of press and interviews. From an interview with Daniel Kramer I discovered that James Rado, one of the composers and the original Claude, was involved with the production in some way. I happened to know a few people involved with the show, one who was in it and one involved on the creative side, and after the performance I got a bit more information about Rado's involvement. He was indeed involved, but more in a creative approval sense. I also found out that although he had given his approval, he liked the show but didn't seem to love it. There were rumours of the production transferring to the West End, and I know through one of my sources that they were even looking for funding and reimagining the sets and costumes for a larger space. I also heard that there was a possibility that James Rado was not on board with this transfer, I seem to remember that he was more partial to Hair remaining in the 60's. I have to say that at the time, I put that preference down to someone who was unable to move forward and as a result we would only see 'museum piece' productions of Hair in the future. This is probably the main reason it never happened. Just my feeling. Anyway, it was sad - I was gearing up to be a Hair groupie!

Fast forward. We now live an internet lead world where all sorts of information is just a Google search away. All sorts of Hair information is out there, from personal experiences of seeing the original production to recollections from those directly involved and I think I have found most of them. Through my research, I got a better sense of what the original production was all about - a collection of loosely connected scenes. I thought back to the Gate production, it had some of those original aspects but I think there was a concerted effort to 'strengthen' the storyline. The more I thought about it, there was definitely a shoehorn effect feeling about some of the scenes. I think I was just so thrilled to see a production that i brushed those negative feelings aside and just concentrated on everything else. From seeing it live, I also became a huge fan of the original cast album, learning to love the real quality of the performances. And I now have a real hard time watching the film (talk about shoehorning a storyline).

Living in London I was only vaguely aware of the semi recent Public Theater concerts and the subsequent In The Park production. I was more aware of the Park peformances from reading the message boards over at Broadway World dot com but I didn't get too into it, mainly because I wouldn't be able to see it. From what I can tell, through interviews, comments etc, it seemed to be a very transcendant experience. So, when they announced the transfer indoors, I wondered how it would be done. I saw video interviews with the Director Diane Paulus and Public Theatre Artistic Director Oskar Eustis who alluded to the exciting ways they were going to bring the experience indoors, make it a 'happening' that included the audience. Now I was excited. This seemed like the real thing and the timing was right. As my family is in the States I took the opportunity to book a ticket for the show (way in advance of first preview) that would coincide with a trip to see the folks in Philadelphia.

Hair - the experience.
As I queued waiting for the doors to open, I noticed something unusal about those waiting with me. I was on my own I had more of an opportunity to take it all in. The age range, as expected, was across the board age, but what I thought was interesting was the a lack of people there to impress - no airs and graces. Everyone was so kind and, well, peaceful. The woman in front of me asked me to save her space in the queue as she saw a friend of hers. When she returned, she immediately opened up and told me that she had only met the woman she went to greet about a week earlier at a bus stop and since then continuously ran into her in various locations throughout the city. Here she was again, at Hair. Cosmic? I think so.

At my seat (11th row centre orchestra) the woman next to me was kind and chatted with me although she was with her family. One of the members of the party next to me who I chatted with started chatting to the people in front of them. I looked around and everyone seemed to be chatty, friendly and very happy. The show started and I got chills, it was a great opening and the show sped along with song after song, hit after hit. I realised that the structure was less structured than what I saw in London.

Much has been said about the audience interaction, so I was prepared for it. I knew the people in the first row and on the aisles would play a big part, which they did. What I wasn't prepared for was the amount of time the Tribe spent in the audience, often staying and interacting for extended periods. This was fantastic. Many times there were three completely unrelated scenarios happening at the same time, Tribe member 1 in one aisle, Tribe member 2 in another aisle, both in a mini scene with an audience member, and whatever was happening on the stage. It's an amazing concept that in the wrong hands could have meant disaster - it could have been a study in pulling focus. It added immensely to the experience, it was so inclusive. The choreography was also skillfully integrated, wonderful organic movement that never crossed over to razzle dazzle. Funny thing though, there were bits of it that reminded me of what Twyla Tharpe did with the film version. I love Twyla so that wasn't a problem.

Back to my friend. Now granted, she admittedly was tired from a flight and was fighting off a cold. Basically, she thought Gavin Creel (Claude) was a star, Will Swenson (Berger) was somewhat showy, she didn't relate as much to the second act as the first ('the Vietnam parts' as she referred to them) but the audience on stage at the end along with, what I consider the greatest anthem ever, 'Let the Sun Shine In', brought tears to her eyes. It did to mine as well and I'm not afraid to admit it. I find that song very stirring and it hits a chord. I think it does with many. (Good Morning Starshine is still my favourite - gliddy glop gloopy!). Do I agree with the rest of what she said. Yes, to a degree.

Sure, there were some performances that worked better for me than others, and yes the second half has a somewhat different tone - either you relate to it or not. However, what I realised from what she said, and what prompted me to write this, was that with this production and Hair in general, the sum of its parts is greater than any of the individuals. It's about community, it's about coming together for the same cause and the disillusionment and confusion that can bring. Keeping it set in its original era is the only way to go as this production reminds us of where we came from but with its brilliant direction, keeps us firmly rooted in the now.

There has been some chatter about the strength of Hair as a musical, saying that in the traditional sense it's not good, structurally. I think that's the point. It's and experience, it's a real happening or as close as you can get whilst still being an audience member. It's an amalgamation of thoughts, ideas, ideologies, social criticism, social observation and personal awareness. It's conceptual art, and as conceptual art it's conceptual bliss.

Hair Broadway