50 years ago, the rock opera ‘Hair’ first appeared on the scene in New York
It was about 50 years ago that the rock opera ‘Hair’ first appeared on the scene in New York, just preceding the famous ‘Summer of Love’ of 1968. Having humble beginnings, it played first in a disco way off Broadway, the actors greeting and ushering people in before performing. James Rado’s and Gerome Ragni’s simple tale of hippies experiencing, dealing with and creating the ’60’s was like a wet splash in the face to theater goers at the time. When they got the square but talented Canadian composer Galt MacDermot to musicify their ideas, their small story suddenly turned into a tsunami that swept them to Broadway.
The piece was more music than story. In fact, it was hardly a story at all, more a romp through New York and America at a time of great changes as seen through the eyes of a band of hippies. Only at the end, with the main character’s induction into the Army does it congeal into a real tale and at that point packs a wallop.
The story is a carousel ride though many different fields of awareness and levels of emotion as the characters live out their lives on the streets of the big, cold city. The songs run the gamut from depressive pessimism (the Flesh Failures) to transcendental joyousness (Good Morning Starshine).
Many of the tunes became famous when covered by the groups popular in that day. One of Three Dog Nights first big hits was ‘Easy To Be Hard’ which lamented over how it was easier to be callous in a world that really needed a little understanding and love. The family band The Cowsills brilliantly orchestrated the theme song “Hair’ into a wild collage about the virtues of our head toppings with a wild collage of vocal talent. The Fifth Dimension did their famous Grammy winning version of ‘Aquarius’, tacking a normally mournful ‘Let the Sun Shine’ onto the end of it and giving it an upbeat spin which is now better known than the original lament. The Irish pop singer Donovan did his take on the heavenly ‘Good Morning Starshine‘ which is as upbeat as a tune can possibly get.
Known famously as the musical with ‘naked people’ in it, the play to many was just a slam on tired old American values and a quest for lewdness and decadence. To some extent they were right, which is easy to see now with the 50 years of hindsight given us. What is often not understood, though, is that the real zest of its popularity was its basic free-spiritedness and that it was not meant to be taken seriously.
Anything goes and anything did. All taboos were assaulted with glee and for all the sensitivity it showed it also rubbed on a lot of establishment nerves. In other words, it was every nun’s nightmare. Everyone was liberated, sex was a blast and drugs polluted everyone’s blood stream — squares excluded. But more than that it was about the joy of life.
After the lament “ain’t Got no’ in which players complain of all the things they have to do without, Claude, the closest thing to a star in this starless piece, chirps in with ‘I Got Life’ and carols all one has without any material attachments – laughs, love, freedom, good times, crazy ways and life itself. ‘What A Piece Of Work Is Man’ is probably the only time Shakespeare has been drawn into a rock format, celebrating the uniqueness of of man while disparaging the world he must inhabit. The song ‘I Believe in Love’ says it all in its title.
What sets Hair apart and gives it its depth is its recognition also of the dark side of life. The hippie life was not all flowers and love. There was also loneliness, hurt misunderstandings, disillusionment and the threat of Vietnam was a constant threat in the background, becoming all too much a part of their lives by the end of the play. War’s hell was expressed in ‘3-5-0-0’ and life’s hell in ‘The Flesh Failures’. ‘Easy To Be Hard’ again depicts exactly what the title implies- that it is easier to be insensitive and hard than to show someone a little kindness. Type in to some of these songs on YouTube and see if they do not strike a resonance even in those of you who have never seen the piece.
Unfortunately, much of Hair has drug use and references and was largely drug influenced. The negatives caused by drug use were not as well known then as it is now. Fortunately, the love and the free spiritedness of the majority of the musical outshines this and it is this aspect of the play that is most remembered and loved.
Even after five decades Hair and its music still vibrate radiantly. I viewed it a while back in Reno where a local college group was reviving it. The energy these young people gave to it both musically and emotionally was astonishing. They successfully embodied the times even though three decades separated the play’s inception from their very births. It was sold out almost every night. In many ways, both upbeat and downbeat, it still images the world we live in today.
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