I had a chance to see the musical Hair this weekend at the newly dubbed Segerstrom Center for the Arts (formerly Orange County Performing Arts Center). Hair has always been one of my favorite shows. However, it has been off of my radar for a few years, and its genius was forgotten in favor of some of the newer shows (Next to Normal! Spring Awakening! Fela!) that currently populate my iPod. When I heard that Broadway was staging a revival of the play in 2009, I was excited to see how this brilliant show would be staged. It won the Tony Award for best musical revival, but I had to wait more than a year for the show to come to my area on tour.
In anticipation of the local premiere, I stocked my iPod with the soundtrack and was quickly reminded of how much I love the music. It has an amazing score—tight harmonies paired with complex melodies, and songs that are just plain fun for singing along to.
Hair was a revolutionary musical. In a season of syrupy musicals by Rogers and Hammerstein, Hair was a serious departure from the usual Broadway fare. The show was cutting edge not just because of the subject matter, but because the music was done in a rock-opera style that had rarely been attempted. To my mind, this innovation puts Hair in the same category as Rent, Spring Awakening, and American Idiot—all shows that introduced a new sound to the traditional musical theater milieu. The show opened in 1967, and dealt with difficult and timely subjects, casting both a sympathetic and a critical gaze on the ideology of the hippie movement, the draft, and the fight against the establishment.
The story focuses on three main characters, all hippies who are struggling to find the balance between hedonism and personal responsibility. The show is conceptual in nature, though; you won’t find an action-driven storyline, and many of the songs do not forward the plot. I think the focus of the show is to be evocative and to challenge the thinking of the audience, rather than to tell a traditional story.
This particular revival of Hair puts a new, technocolor spin on the classic show. The staging is modern and sparse—wood scaffolding provides for stage height variation, and also serves as a platform for the orchestra, which can be seen throughout the play. The cast—or “tribe”—interacts with the audience in an attempt to make the show more experiential. This felt kitschy at times, but it also served to engage the audience at many points during the play, including a dance party at the end where everyone was invited on stage with the cast. The songs of Hair are often written more in prose than verse, and at times the lyrics were difficult to decipher. However, there is a rich and profound poetry in the music of Hair, which requires more than one listen to fully ingest. There is so much meaning packed into the lyrics that it is almost hard to process.
The play deals with historical themes (war, racism, revolution, and the American military-industrial complex), but it also deals with universal themes like love, the search for meaning, and nihilism. The play sparked a great discussion between my husband and me. We talked a long time about the sustainability of hedonism, the meaning of patriotism, the fallacy of the American dream, and the definition of self-actualization. It really did prompt us to think on some of these issues, and we stayed up way too late discussing politics and philosophy. For me, it is the best of theater experiences that end with my husband and me engaged in spirited debate, and it was fun to unpack these themes with him.
I thought this particular revival of Hair was pretty true to the original, with just a few modern updates. People familiar with the movie might be disappointed to find that the story arc for both Berger and Sheila is much less complex in the play—there is little contrast with those outside the hippie movement save for the stodgy parents. Still, the play is full of powerful songs culminating in the epic “Let the Sun Shine In”—one of those Broadway moments, like Seasons of Love or I Know Where I’ve Been, that dazzles with historical and human impact, and leaves the viewer with that mood boost that only a good musical can give.
Hair plays at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts until Feb 6th.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus