The Public Theater’s smashing new revival of Hair (1967) in Central Park is a joy from beginning to end. It’s just the best, though fans of South Pacific (1947) might not agree with me.
I felt about Lincoln Center’s loving revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific that while the audience seemed to be in heaven, I was in a retirement home. But Hair is different. Hair is my South Pacific.
“The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”—to give its glorious subtitle—was the first show I ever saw with performers onstage who were my own age. It’s the musical that spoke directly to my 1960s generation, though there’s another particular affection I have for it: For reasons nobody’s ever been able to figure out, Hair’s stoned hero—Claude Bukowski from Flushing, Queens—likes to pretend he’s from Manchester, England.
As readers of this column may recall, so am I. The sixth song in the show—following the great opening anthem “Aquarius” (“This is the dawning of the age of …”); the infectious tribute to the psychedelic urchin, “Donna”; the paean to chemical abuse in “Hashish” and to the joys of sex in “Sodomy”; and the brilliant mad parade of racist stereotypes in “Colored Spade”—comes the peculiar song titled “Manchester, England” that Claude and the Tribe sing specially for me:
Manchester England England
Across the Atlantic Sea
And I’m a genius genius
I believe in God
And I believe that God
Believes in Claude
The genius-genius of Hair’s creators—Galt MacDermot, music; Gerome Ragni and James Rado, lyrics—wasn’t only to have created the first rock show in the history of musicals. They broke every theatrical rule and convention. Hair was the first production by Joseph Papp—founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival—that wasn’t Shakespeare; it was the first Off Broadway show to transfer to Broadway (via a midtown disco where it was also staged); and it was the first to have nudity onstage. (Diane Keaton is famously the only member of the original cast who refused to appear naked.)
A NUMBER OF the hippy dropouts onstage were the real thing in the original production on Broadway. They slept overnight in Robin Wagner’s set. They made out with the audience. At the end of the show (which ran for three years), the band played on and the cast partied all night with anyone who wanted to.
Sometimes, stoned audience members would climb onstage during the show to join in the performance, and nobody seemed to mind. Hair was also the first concept musical, and its nonlinear plot has always been on the vague side. The story, about a tribe of New York hippies defying conscription into the Vietnam War, is really a springboard to the show’s now iconic score of 32 songs.
None of them rhyme much. Some end midstream, left deliberately hanging. Some are simply beautiful, like the ballad that sets Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” to music, or forlornly sweet and yearning, like “Frank Mills,” Chrissy’s tale about some guy she met in front of the Waverly on Sept. 12th:
I would gratefully appreciate it
If you see him tell him
I’m in the park with my girlfriend
Tell him Angela and I
Don’t want the two dollars back