Easy to be Hard
When my friend Coop called me with last minute tickets to a preview of HAIR on Broadway I immediately said yes. And then said no. And then said yes again. I mean, I grew up with HAIR. I sang along with the LP record original broadway cast recording from the age of 10. I saw the movie. My biggest dream ever was to grow up and magically discover a world where HAIR was real and I could be in America’s Tribal Love-Rock Musical forever and always. This is the musical show that made me do drugs, dammit! All of my youthful hopes, dreams, passion and vision were tied up in this show that I had never seen live.
When I was in college they staged they show. One of my university’s notorious musical theater hacks staged it pretty unimaginatively [though Brian D’Arcy James did a wonderful job as Berger, if I recall. Or maybe Claude? I don’t remember very well. But he was good]. I of course, didn’t get cast for a number of reasons, not least of which is because I looked like this:
(note an also very young Anna Gunn behind me holding up the cover our our AO3 textbook)
Which I think was a little too close to the real thing for the Musical Theater Department. BUT ANYWAY….The point is that I was reluctant to see the show on Broadway. And as the show began I thought my suspicions were confirmed: Oh god, another re-hash bullshit baby-boomer self-indulgence festival romanticizing their youth and repackaging the “hippie” brand one more time to cash in on the new era of “hope”. And maybe for some people it is.
But what I walked away with – and I hope this was Diane Paulus’ intention – was a much darker, thoughtful and heartbreaking examination of the loss of innocence; a meditation on the passion, romanticism, idealism and naivete of youth; in some ways this Hair is a tragedy in that we, as the audience, know the horrible ending even as the actors do not, thus it employs the Ancient Greek device of Tragic Irony.
I’m not going to give anything away but I’d love to know how much of this was in the original and how much Paulus put in. It was the first version of the show that, to me, had a (relatively) clear plotline. And strangely it adhered to a psychedelic concert structure that I generally attribute to the Grateful Dead – the first set is short, popp-y songs, the second set after intermission much more of an extended interwoven psychedelic jam, when the LSD has kicked in and you’re not just “happy” but you’re seriously tripping.
Also – the cast is so young, optimistic, energetic and winning you can’t help but fall in love with them. To some extent that’s what left me weeping by the end of the show. This was the first time in my life that I had experienced Hair from the other side of the generation gap. I was looking at these kids and I not only was heartbroken for what their characters would become (I lived through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, I watched as a child the missteps and mistakes and grievous errors the Baby Boomers committed, I watched the hippie dream die a self-indulgent and brutal death, reaching its dark apotheosis during the reign of George W. Bush) but I empathized with the kids themselves. I remembered being that kid and I watched these happy, energetic, idealistic young actors performing their hearts out and I just wanted them to stay that way forever, to not have to suffer the difficulties that life inevitably brings. I thought about how fortunate this generation is that, generally speaking, the upside of the Baby Boomer revolution is that parents nowadays are much more understanding because they’ve been through it themselves. So even though they want to protect their kids they don’t feel the need to trample on youthful exuberance.
So I don’t know if its me or the show or Diane Paulus – but I feel like she rescued Hair from being a nostalgic museum piece and made it into a beautiful, bittersweet, psychedelic celebration of youthful idealism and the tragic loss of innocence. Plus she brought back that loose, interwoven, presentational style of theater that, generally, feels yucky and contrived. But she did it nicely. For those people who go looking for a nostalgia-fest, they might be disappointed, but those people who go wanting to see a fresh adapation and have a powerful, surprising encounter with a well-known text will be satisfied for sure. If at first you don’t succumb, relax and go with it. By the end of the show you will be won over.
I guarantee it.