by Byron Woods
I believe I’ve stumbled upon a late-breaking conspiracy theory—so please say you heard it here first:
A Vast (or, possibly, Half-Vast) Right Wing Conspiracy is actually funding the revival and tour of that touchstone 60s rock musical, HAIR.
Impossible, you say? Hard to believe? Beyond the realm of possibility? Yes, I thought all those things, too—once.
But then I saw the touring version this week at Durham Performing Arts Center. And then I started connecting all the dots…
Let’s dispense with the disclaimers up front. According to the old one-liner, if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. To tell the truth: I wasn’t. In addition, Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s iconoclastic musical has had two full revivals—and a handful of self-styled “concert” presentations—in New York after the original cast first bowed there in 1967. I’ve seen none of these iterations. Indeed, the only production I had seen going into this performance was a Burning Coal Theatre staging last fall—one that I wasn’t as taken with as reviewer Kate Dobbs Araial. (No slam there; critics regularly agree to disagree on the merits of a show.)
So, here a national, professional touring version had the opportunity to make the first case for this musical with a viewer who still had pretty fresh eyes for the work—and next to nothing in the way of preconceptions about what it actually did in a darkened room.
And by the end of the evening I was wondering exactly when HAIR had been hijacked by the Conservative Cabal.
For this vision of the Sixties reduces too much of the counterculture of protest to criminally underdeveloped, graffiti-level lyrics, set to sound bites instead of songs. When a full third of the 39 (count’ em) songs in this revival’s score clocks in—and out—in under 60 seconds, take it as a given: at least a few of the finer points in the philosophical underpinnings of this group’s stances on race, war, corporations and the environment are going to get glossed over.
Or perhaps not, as it turns. For with so much emphasis here on the revolution of the senses, the critical thinking that actually sparked the social criticism of the ‘60s decidedly takes a back seat in this musical. The character on stage who seems to have given these issues the most coherent thought is that brainy, nerdy senior citizen dubbed Margaret Mead (Josh Lamon)—whose cross-dressing amusingly blows a few of the kids’ minds toward the end of Act One.
But for the most part, this group of teenagers and adolescents in their early 20s—played almost uniformly by actors between five and ten years too old to convince in their parts—seem more a collection of human superballs than a real tribe, all but constantly ricocheting across the DPAC stage (and repeatedly out into the audience, a device that becomes wearing well before the end of the first act).
They careen through Ragni, Rado and MacDermot’s muddled menu of issues, which devolved into a list of non-sequiturs well before Claude’s bad drug trip in Act Two. Lost in the senses, these liberal youths have no visible discipline, organization or resources to draw upon, and no coherent plan to counter the evil they see.
They’re completely ineffectual when they do protest on stage. And though they talk a good game—saying they'll smuggle Claude (Paris Remillard), who’s “Vietnam-bait,” up to Canada—when it comes down to it, they don’t affect any change that we can see.
Some forty-four years later, they’re still ultimately victims, calling out to us, the audience, for rescue. So sweet, so soulful, and above all, so naive. So idealistic, and therefore so bereft of political, economic and social survival skills. So brave—and so hopelessly outnumbered. In short, very easy prey to the politics of the time.
I’m sure that a number of right-wingers would like to reduce the impact of the entire culture of '60s social protest to a reductio ad absurdum that lovely, that poignant—and that helpless.
I’m fairly sure they’d also like the rest of us to only see it in that light as well.
In moments like this, I like to recall the passage in Henry Kissinger's memoirs where he wrote that the protests in our country were the only thing that prevented the U.S. from going nuclear in Vietnam.
Over the years since its debut, the creators of HAIR have actually added a number of new songs to the original score for various restagings, here and abroad.
But significantly, none of the new material of which I am aware gives any inkling of the success the counterculture ultimately had. Perhaps the creators concluded that would somehow make certain characters or situations in the production less noble, less...tragic.
Perhaps that is right. But as it stands, the current version of HAIR does a different and dangerous disservice to that time when its characters are never seen as anything but winsome, beautiful—and losers.
Thus this conspiracy theory, for a production and script that romanticizes—and reduces—a very complex time to what is, ultimately, an alarmingly incomplete flashback.