By Bob Keefer
Published: June 19, 2008
"Hair" the "American Tribal Love Rock Musical," as it's billed
opened on Broadway 40 years ago this spring.
The passage of four long decades presents a challenge for Michael
Watkins, who is directing the latest production of the show at Actors
Cabaret of Eugene. It has been a sold-out favorite every few years
for the little Eugene theater company, most recently in 2004.
But 40 years? Anyone still remember the generation gap? Remember not
trusting anyone over 30?
"I wanted a cast that was under 30," he said during a break in
rehearsal the other night. "So my oldest actor is 29."
"My mom was a hippie!" says 25-year-old Cate Wolfenbarger, who plays
Sheila, the apex of the play's romantic triangle. "She grew up on a
Midwestern farm. And in her high school class she was the only person
into the Beatles."
Watkins himself is 57.
"That means I've been doing a lot of explaining about things to the
young cast. Hey, I was alive then."
He well remembers those crazy years of the late 1960s: Vietnam,
marijuana, sexual experimentation, a manic energy that infused
practically every walk of life, at least for those who were then
younger than 30.
Like some kind of living history project, Watkins brought his old
draft card in to show the young actors, many of whose characters are
called on to burn their draft cards in the course of the story.
(Watkins remembers the draft well. He got a losing number in the
first draft lottery and was called up for a military physical which
he happily flunked because of a kidney condition.)
"The biggest thing for me is, here we are 40 years later. And nothing
has changed. We're in another war. We're killing off young men and
women. Nothing much has changed."
Nothing much has changed in "Hair," either. Four decades after its
national launch, the musical written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado
remains a flawed masterpiece containing both moments of brilliance
and stretches of self indulgence.
With its roots in experimental theater of the 1960s, the show is by
"Oklahoma!" standards anyway severely nonlinear, with actors
segueing seamlessly from one character to another without much
notification to the audience.
In that sense it would become a watershed production, a cultural
ancestor of later shows such as "Rent," and one of the first Broadway
shows to cram so much music 30-plus songs into a single evening.
"Hair" had nudity, it had outrageous language, it had intelligent
songs with language as harsh as barbed wire. On the downside, the
show is as heavy handed and melodramatic as a hormonal teenager and
has a thinner plot than a Sunday comic.
"The book is workable," Watkins insists. "It does tell a story ..."
At the time it opened "Hair" was praised and denounced in nearly
equal measure. In The New York Times, critic Clive Barnes mused,
"What is so likable about 'Hair,' that tribal rock musical that last
night completed its trek from downtown ... and landed, positively
panting with love and smelling of sweat and flowers, at the Biltmore Theater?
"I think it is simply that it is so likable. So new, so fresh, and so
unassuming, even in its pretensions."
But Time magazine couldn't get its mind around the show's
hallucinatory formlessness, saying it was "crippled by being a
bookless musical and, like a boneless fish, it drifts when it should
swim." And Variety didn't get it at all: "It's impossible to tell
whether (the players) have talent. Maybe talent is irrelevant in this
new kind of show business."
The cultural right hated "Hair" because it was so out of control; the
left hated it because it had as much to do with '60s rock 'n' roll as
the Beach Boys had to do with actual surf music. The rock music in
"Hair" wasn't exactly Jimi Hendrix quality.
A big part of the show's popularity was that it served as an upraised
middle finger to the establishment, from Pentagon generals to
conventional Broadway producers.
It hit just about every cultural hot button of the time, from
desecrating the American flag to explicit profanity to an entire song
built out of derogatory racial epithets.
Its disdain for the establishment was most clearly illustrated by
"Hair's" famous nude scene at the end of Act I, when the entire cast
disrobed and stood side by side on stage in an earnest proclamation
of Edenic innocence.
In 1968 all this theatrical ferment drew police raids, court
injunctions and even bombings as the show played around the world.
Mexico closed "Hair" down after one performance; the cast fled the
country to escape arrest.
In Boston the production defied a court order that actors keep
clothes on; legal wrangling reached the U.S. Supreme Court before a
split decision allowed the show to reopen, nudity and all.
"Hair" is a considerably calmer experience in 2008.
Stage nudity, now, is less controversial, but the Eugene production
foregoes any shedding of clothes. Nudity in this show would be a good
deal more in your face at ACE's intimate dinner theater, or even at
the small Soreng Theater, where the show moves for three final
performances in July.
One reason the song lyrics in "Hair" are so compelling is that they
steal liberally OK, these days we might say "appropriate" from
much greater literary lights.
The entire song "What a Piece of Work Is Man" is copied straight over
from William Shakespeare's Hamlet.
And "The Flesh Failures" what a title! steals more lines from
Hamlet, such as the doomed prince's last words: "The rest is
silence." Even more lines are copped from "Romeo and Juliet."
More obscurely, the bitter anti-war song "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" lifts
a number of passages from Allen Ginsberg's 1966 poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra."
Ginsberg, in his Walt Whitman-like voice, describes U.S. Gen. Maxwell
Taylor's report of "Viet Cong losses leveling up three five zero zero
per month" and then goes on, in what will be modified slightly for
the song's chorus:
Flesh soft as a Kansas girl's
ripped open by metal explosion
three five zero zero on the other side of the planet
caught in barbed wire, fire ball
bullet shock, bayonet electricity
bomb blast terrific in skull & belly, shrapneled throbbing ...
"Hair" was also one of the first big plays to introduce colorblind
casting, in which actors are given roles regardless of or in
counterpoint to their ethnicity. The practice has since taken firm
root in American theater, particularly in places such as the Oregon
The protagonist, Claude Bukowski (played here by Chris McVein) is a
sweetly aimless figure, with allusions both to Hamlet and to Jesus.
In the course of the play Claude is drafted and killed in the war but
comes back to haunt the Tribe, his tie-dyed collection of hippie
friends who form the musical's chorus.
The cast also includes Tyler Holden (who had the same role at ACE in
2004) as Berger, Claude's more-decisive foil and competitor for
Sheila; Colin Gray as Woof and Amanda Fackrell as Jeannie.
Tribe members include Rachel O'Malley, Hannah Troxel, Chelsea Acker,
Laura Holden, Lucille Dawson, Cecilia French, Eve Springer, Cody
Mendonca, Jermaine Golden, Antonio Gutierrez and Rob Sozda. The
musical director is Mark Van Beever with vocal direction by Gerald
Walters. Joe Zingo designed the costumes, set and lighting.
In the end, despite its steadily upbeat rhythms, "Hair" is a
melancholy tragedy. The final musical sequence has "The Flesh
Failures" moving into "Let the Sunshine In," which has long been sung
as a bright anthem for the 1960s.
But in the context of the play, with its pointed jabs at the sexism
and racism and general directionlessness of the counterculture, "Let
the Sunshine In" becomes more of a hopeless plea than an enthusiastic
celebration. Watkins agrees. "There is an underlying sadness to it
all," he says. "These guys figure out the whole hippie thing just
wasn't going to work."