Once upon a time (the late '60s, to be exact), there was an enchanted land called the East Village, where hippies roamed the streets, and every day was a carnival of acid-washed colors and acid-tripping freaks. That East Village may have vanished along with the Electric Circus, the Theater 80 St. Marks and Fillmore East. But it lives again, gloriously, 30 blocks uptown in a Broadway theater.
There will be those who would wish to read into the current revival of Hair relevance for today: an unpopular war; economic, political and social turmoil; an anti-Establishment mood. To which I say: Fuggadaboutit.
The reasons why this show works so beautifully are pretty much the same as for the original production: a terrific, energetic young ensemble cast; imaginative choreography and direction that immediately breaks down the fourth wall and takes over the entire theater; and above all, a deathless score.
As someone who saw the original 1967 production (in 1969), I admit to walking into the Al Hirschfeld Theater full of trepidation that the show that so affected me when I was young (very young, thank you!) wouldn't have aged well. After all, the hippies are as distant from today's youth as the flappers were to the disco era or the Big Band swingers to the big-haired '80s.
Then Sasha Allen started singing the first lines of that anthemic opener "Age of Aquarius" ("When the moon/Is in the seventh house/And Jupiter aligns with Mars/Then peace will guide the planets/And love will rule the stars"). And I was hooked.
The show only goes up from there, to a high (in every sense) and just keeps soaring. The first act is nearly all sung. I forgot just how much music there is. Everyone knows the many Top 10 perennial hits, not only "Aquarius," but "Let the Sunshine In," "Easy to Be Hard" (a hit in its cover by Three Dog Night), "Good Morning Starshine" (covered by just about everyone, but best known by Donovan), and the title song.
But there's more. So much more. The great music, performed by an onstage ensemble, just keeps coming at you, until even the squarest codger (like the dude sitting next to me) succumbs to the spirit. After that incredible first act, I expected the second to be a letdown, but I had forgotten the bad trip taken by Claude, whose story forms the rough outlines of the barely-there plot.
Born Claude Bukowski, Claude has invented another persona for himself, from Manchester, England ("across the shining sea"). Claude lives in an uneasy truce with his Archie Bunkeresque parents in Flushing, Queens. When the summons from the draft board comes, Claude wants to escape. But he's not sure he wants the amorphous existence of the semi-street people he hangs with in Lower Manhattan, either.
Claude is by far the most interesting character in the show because Claude is the only one who is at all conflicted. The rest are two-dimensional, who, "Chorus Line"-style, step out one by one and provide us with self-identifying markers. Like "A Chorus Line," it works--not because of the way their characters are written; rather, its their music that rounds them.
Director Diane Paulus and especially choreographer Karole Armitage are to be congratulated for not adhering to the original production, but looking for new, fresh and exciting ways to bring these people and Galt MacDermot's score to life. The ending, which differs completely from the original, is especially effective and shattering.
It's interesting to see how much "Hair" influenced what came after. By now, it's a theatrical trope that "Hair" revolutionized Broadway. Before "Hair," the Great White Way had abdicated its status as a hitmaker to rock acts like Elvis and the Beatles. The big shows when "Hair" debuted were "Hello, Dolly" and "Fiddler on the Roof." After "Hair," Broadway was welcoming to the music that everyone else was listening to. Its influence extends to jukebox musicals and every subsequent show about youth angst, especially "Rent," for which "Hair" serves as a near-template (albeit with far better music). It's worth remembering how many great performers came out of this show, such as Diane Keaton (on Broadway) and Donna Summers (discovered while in the Munich resident production).
There are a few nitpicky things here and there. "Easy to Be Hard" is less effective when the person who is being accused of being one of those who "care about strangers and social injustice," but "only care about the bleeding crowd" isn't present. I remember "Abie Baby" being more bluesy. And Will Swenson plays Berger, the de facto leader of this ratty pack, barely skirting the line between exuberant and obnoxious.
But these are tiny quibbles, more than made up for by magic moments. That bad acid trip that takes up so much of the second act is so dreamy and trippy that I got a contact high. The "Black Boys"/"White Boys" medley, where white girls sing of the delights of black flesh, and black girls respond with their own paean to the pleasures of pale skin, is guaranteed to bring the house down, which it does here.
I could go on, but just see it. Trust me: By the end, you'll be rushing to get on stage and let it all hang out, as they used to say. It's beyond great. It's groovy.
Al Hirschfeld Theater
302 W. 45th St. (just west of Eighth Avenue)