I first saw Hair down at the New York Public Theatre in 1967. I had never seen anything like it: a revolutionary, tribal, hippy musical that was anti-Vietnam, promoted burning one’s draft card, explored human sexuality and drug use, and was irreverent towards the flag.
The musical moved (after a brief run at the Public) to a discotheque called the Cheetah where it ran for another 45 performances. The critics weren’t crazy for the show but audiences loved it. Director Tom O’Horgan was brought on board as director and 13 weeks later, with 13 new songs, an even looser plot, and an improvisatory acting style, the show was ready to open on Broadway.
One of the most controversial additions was of a nude scene where cast members were free to disrobe en masse and be revealed to the audience behind the American flag. The Public withdrew its backing and it was left to a Chicago businessman, Michael Butler, to produce the show. After great difficulty finding a theatre Hair finally opened on Broadway in 1968 and has become an international sensation ever since.
I felt the show lost something in its transfer to Broadway, though O’Horgan had given the show a new zest. In later years I saw the show several times but it always lacked the original tribal spirit of the ’60s. What I would see would be a pale imitation of a period the actors didn’t understand. I lived in the East Village in the ’60s so I saw these people first hand.
I went to Hair at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts with some trepidation. This new production had been a huge success in New York and I was interested to see what director Diane Paulus and choreographer Armitage had brought to the mix. The results were astounding. Hair lived again, not so much as a shocking piece of theatre, but a musical that explored themes we still have among us, like war, race, and sexual identity, and showed a youth trying to find their identity through song.
In fact new songs were added and there was lots of choreography, so what we saw on stage was a non-stop energetic yearning to find a better America. Today all we have is the Tea Party, hardly the force of the hippies in the ’60s. The cast was excellent, with great singing voices and real commitment to the piece. Instead of self-indulgence we saw the real passion of a youth culture trying to find its way in a world gone mad.
Standouts were Steel Burkhardt as Berger, Paris Remillard as Claude (what a gorgeous voice), Caren Lyn Tackett as Sheila, and Josh Lamon as a series of characters, all fantastic. When the show ended the audience stayed another 20 minutes singing and dancing to “Let The Sun Shine In.” This production of Hair let it shine with its huge heart.
Hair plays at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts until Feb 6th.