First, forget the movie. Ignore it. If all you know about the Broadway rock musical Hair is what you remember from the 1979 film then you don’t really know Hair. You may recall a character’s name, and you probably remember some of the songs, usually the ones you already knew from repeated radio play, like The Fifth Dimension’s Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in, Oliver’s Good Morning Starshine, or The Cowsills with the title song, Hair. But that’s it. In truth, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was unfilmable, and the ‘79 movie proved it.
In the way that Hamilton has changed the direction future musicals may take, in its day, so did Hair. Consider the following. It was the first rock musical; the first to handle microphones in a way that is now common place; it used a racially integrated cast to a degree that was rarely used before; and even though there had been the occasional moment of theatrical nudity, never had the disrobing of clothes by the entire cast caused such a controversy. People tend to forget Oh! Calcutta! No one forgets Hair.
Arizona Broadway Theatre’s new production, which runs until March 25, is an undeniably audacious presentation. It hearkens back to the beginning with an attractive looking, twenty strong member cast, where the free-wheeling attitude of the characters are reflected in the overall style of the musical. There’s far more discipline to the performances and the choreography in this ABT production than there appeared in the late sixties, both in New York and on the London stage, but unlike those presentations where there was a concern that at any moment its wildness and its seemingly ad-libbed manner were going to fall apart, director Kurtis Overby appears to have a firm grip, and it immediately shows. When the cast dances to Aquarius, it looks less like the free-for-all of the sixties stage original, where the movements appeared as though they were made up on the spot, and more like a choreographed Broadway production. That sense of something spontaneous may be missing, but it doesn’t alter things. After all, ABT knows its audience, and the fact that the theatre even dared to stage a production is brazen enough. There’s only so much free wheelin’ a dinner theatre audience can take.
The theatre’s production is not staged exactly in the way audiences enjoyed the show back in ‘68. Back then, the stage was practically bare, you could see everything; the radiator pipes on the brick wall, the stage props, the hanging ropes, the lighting above, even the darkly-lit wings with stage-hands helping out. The only intentionally designed fixture was a large, authentic looking Native American totem pole, plus a Crucifix tree with an abstract looking Jesus upon it. Here, scenic designer Aaron Sheckler has created a totally different look. It’s an all-enveloping scaffolding set, a hippie ghetto, full of dangling materials as if colorful handkerchiefs and scarves were permanently hung out to dry. There’s no totem pole nor a crucifix tree. Nor are there any oversized puppets representing outside authority looming in the background, ready to pounce in case any of the hippies got out of hand with their protests.
Other noticeable differences are some of Josh D. Smith’s music direction. Previously, when the cast entered in what looked like mimed slo-mo that introduced the opening song, Aquarius, it was backed by other worldly sounds consisting of electronic whirs and beeps as if everyone was floating down from outta space, including the music. Here, the cast enter from the audience to the arrangement reminiscent of the film score; a percussive beat and a call of the trumpets. It’s smoother, less raw. The same with Hare Krishna. While the production incorporates the original dialog that interrupts the song, the arrangement sounds more like the movie than the rough-around-the-edges sound of the show.
But despite the changes in set and audio, plus some streamlining in song presentations (White Boys/Black Boys is void of the sequined dresses used for The Supremes look-a-likes) this ABT presentation of Hair is still a thoroughly joyous affair, an infectious concoction of theatrical rock ‘n roll that should either evoke nostalgic memories of the past, or for those who are just too young, serve as an introduction to a musical that once broke new ground with attitudes that seem just as relevant and as urgent today. At least, some of them do.
The score was always good, but this exuberant, ever-active cast inject a fresh vitality into the songs that makes what was old sound new again. And it’s not just a house full of ensemble voices singing as one that gives chills and makes everything sound so exciting, the many solos are equally as good. Lynzee 4Man as the very pregnant Jeanie leads the melodious and always fun Air, Trisha Hart Ditsworth as Crissy gives strength to her solo, Frank Mills (a song where not a single line rhymes) and Katie Hart as Sheila makes the touching Easy To Be Hard into something quite powerful. The song was always good, but now, with the passing of years, the nostalgia, plus the addition of Hart’s outstanding rendition, the song sounds great.
As for the disrobing; it’s there, just ahead of the intermission, but it doesn’t shock in the way it did in ‘68. If anything, it would be shocking and even disappointing if the scene was cut. Though, this being a dinner theatre, there is something amusing about seeing a fully naked cast strut the stage in front of you, minutes before enjoying another cup of coffee and a plate of Nutella Gelato.
Today, forty years after its Broadway debut, what was faced head-on in terms of a counter-culture, the use of drugs, the anti-war movement, its sexuality, conservative America, and the stripping down to personal basics, are all issues that remain to be resolved. Perhaps the creators in the sixties had hoped that by the next century, many of these themes would be things of the past, but in a time of new political intolerance and the ever deepening positions between ideals, it’s surprising how necessary a renewed awareness of the Age of Aquarius tends to be. We all need to chill.
Enjoy ABT’s Hair. You should. It may not reflect everything remembered of the original, and that daring sense of spontaneity is often absent (there’s no invited Be-In up on the stage at the end during Let The Sun Shine where streamers and balloons are usually dropped and you dance with the cast; instead, the cast come out to you in the aisles and around the tables), but it’s still a hugely enjoyable production, the kind that instills a remaining feeling of goodwill long after you’ve left the theatre. Plus, it helps erase the memory of the film, and that alone is definitely a good thing.
Hair continues at ABT in Peoria until March 25
Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin