Hair Today

Is the seminal '70s musical still in style?

Jun 7, 2000 at 4:00 am
For 30 years, through the shag, the wet look, the Hamill feather cut and today's Abercrombie & Fitch quasi-shaved-head look, people have been arguing about the importance of hair -- but not only the stuff on your head. Here, Hair is the landmark "American Tribal Love Rock Musical" that stormed Broadway and popular culture in 1969, inspiring critics to write that this slangy, bold, hippie-radical and theatrically experimental show "would be important to the history of the American musical" (this from the stodgy Wall Street Journal, no less). Hair was hailed as a genuine revolution, attracting torrents of publicity and huge audiences around the world, all fired up to see the late-'60s social mores, language and propensity for hallucinogen-inspired nudity all wrapped up in a energetic and palatable evening of theater.

The impact on the culture was huge. The Broadway, national and international companies played to packed houses -- even after being banned in Boston and Charleston. Four of the show's songs ended up on the charts, including "Easy to Be Hard" (covered by Three Dog Night), "Good Morning Starshine" (Oliver), the title track (the Cowsills) and the Fifth Dimension's blockbuster recordings of "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In." The show's cast album itself spent nearly three years in the Top 100.

The significant revolution was Hair's inventive theatrical form. With the abandon of a Hendrix groupie at Woodstock, Hair flung off the history and traditions of musical theater. Hair was a rock musical. Hair was a loosely knit revue, focusing less on a linear story and specific characters and more on feeling, expression and sensibility. Hair was a satire that took deliberate, clear swipes at specific people and ideas. These, the critics claimed, were the elements to which attention should be paid: They would change the course of the Broadway musical. (Time has shown that those enthusiastic critics also knocked a few good shows because they weren't what Hair was.)

Yet, if you examine them, these theatri- cal revolutions mostly proved to be false promises. The number of successful rock musicals can be counted on one hand -- Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent and ... well, that's about it. The last musical satire to open on Broadway -- Senator Joe -- opened and closed after one infamous preview performance. And although there have been many successful revues -- Ain't Misbehavin', Fosse, Smokey Joe's Cafe -- they are hardly political. In fact, their organizing principle is aesthetic (i.e., a composer or choreographer) instead of intellectual or political. Even worse, a much-ballyhooed 1977 Broadway revival of Hair flopped quickly. So, is Hair really worth doing again, or is it simply an odd anomaly in musical-theater history?

Always ready for the greatest musical-theater challenge he can find, local producer/director Scott Miller and his New Line Theatre troupe close out their ninth season and attempt to answer that question with their new production of Hair. The show opens tomorrow night at Washington University's A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. (As one of the nomadic troupes looking for homes after the shuttering of the St. Marcus Theatre, New Line is only making a temporary stop in the Hotchner space. The company is still looking for a permanent space.)

Talking during the thick of rehearsals, Miller is still a bit unsure of what exactly he has on his hands, but he is clearly excited. "It's funny, it's smart, it moves," he says, "and it brings up all sorts of important issues and statements -- many of which I think are still relevant today. That has surprised me.

"To do this," he continues, "I've done a great deal of research on the hippies, and I've been surprised at what I've found. They weren't reckless, and they had a very serious mission and a point of view. They didn't drink alcohol or smoke pot. They only used the hallucinogenic drugs because they believed that they brought you closer to truth and closer to other people. For the hippies, it was all about pursuing any path that brought about greater peace, freedom and communal consciousness. It wasn't about burning or destroying -- it was about unifying. It's also interesting that the reason the hippies had long hair for the men and short for the women is that they were trying to unify the sexes, make them almost asexual in order to eradicate the differences between men and women. It wasn't about being obnoxious; it was about unity."

On the issue of the show's importance, Miller has yet to make up his mind. "It's a really amazing piece of work," he muses. "Spirited. Moving. And well crafted. I don't think Sondheim could have written Company if it weren't for Hair, because Hair made the audience familiar with the loosely formed musical. But it has been hard to follow up on it, with Rent being the closest since then, but Rent also tells a linear story and was based on other material.

"The basic conflict is inherent in rock music," he asserts. "In rock, the lyric is repetitive and gives the listener the sense of a song's rhythm, its urgency, its force. Music for musicals has to have lyrics that drive a story forward and reveal character. They are really opposite things, and it's difficult to bring them together.

"I think the reason the show didn't work for audiences in 1977 (the flop Broadway revival) is because it was too close to 1969. I think now, 30 years later, there is enough distance, enough perspective for us to see that Hair is truly an original show and there's so much that remains relevant in a human sense. I think people will be surprised by how much joy there is."

New Line Theatre's production of Hair runs Thursday-Saturday, June 8-July 1, at Washington University's A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in Mallinckrodt Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For tickets, call 314-534-1111.