How 'Hair' grew on me, and eventually set me free
By Court Stroud
December 12 - 18, 2008
When the Public Theater announced recently that its 40th anniversary
production of "Hair" would return to Broadway in 2009, my mind
flashed back to this past August. Beneath a balmy, moonlit sky in
Central Park, I saw the musical for the first time.
The moment my date met me outside the Delacorte open-air theater, I
blurted out, "We're going to see "Hair" in Central Park. I've never
seen the musical. Can't wait. When are we going in?"
I talked so animatedly, my companion inquired if I had taken anything
to get into the spirit of things. LSD? Marijuana? Angel Dust? "No,
nothing," I replied. "Well, a can of Red Bull."
As the lights went down, I noticed drunken "theater people"
surrounding us. Soon, they began clapping, singing and swaying with
the cast. Caught up in the vibe, I joined in, surprising myself at
how relaxed I felt. It was evidence that I had become unrecognizable
to my once-stoic self.
Coming from conservative, rural South Texas, I had always felt
disdain for the hippy movement growing up. Talk of "love-ins" and
"peace marches" made me nervous. The repression came from within, not
from my parents. When I was 7, my upright and uptight elementary
school teacher mother left my middle-class (and physically abusive)
father, who disappeared from our lives after the divorce. Within
three months, she had married a junior high dropout bricklayer with a
penchant for wearing flared purple pants. Up until that point, my
mother and I had lived a stalwart mid-American existence. With the
new man in the picture, everything changed. We moved from staid San
Antonio to adventuresome Austin, ground zero for the flower power
movement in the Southwest. My mom let her hair grow long, began
dancing without warning and started expressing her feelings. I was
horrified by the metamorphosis.
Shortly after the wedding ceremony, my mom and stepfather took us to
Zilker Gardens, a verdant downtown park. While I teetered on a
seesaw, they began to kiss passionately in the open air. Dressed in
faded blue jeans, beads and fringed leather vests, they looked every
inch the part of the 1970s counter-cultural scene.
Uneasy with their public display of affection, I hoped my immaculate
white sneakers and coordinated blue terrycloth shirt/shorts combo
would make passers-by think I belonged to some other, more
restrained, couple. After an eternity of looking the other direction,
I could stand no more. "Ah-hem," I cleared my throat in the most
shaming way I knew. They failed to stop the lip-lock. "Excuse me!"
They did not respond. I marched up and tapped them both on their
shoulders. "Can you please STOP? People are starting to stare. You're
embarrassing me." They laughed, sending me back to the playground.
So began my life as a conservative child in an Age of Aquarius
family. For the next 11 years, I would live in world of yoga beads,
health food and Carole King eight-track tapes. My parents forsook
drugs but heartily loved many other trappings of hippy life: long
motorcycle rides from which theywindblown and full of cheerwere
returning; day-long listening sessions with music by The Eagles
blaring; psychedelic, glow-in-the-dark posters tacked up in the
living room, strobe lights blinking; the wafting smell of patchouli
By high school, in rebellion I had become the poster child for the
Young Republicanspresident of just about every organization on
campus, a zealous participant in my Southern Baptist youth group. The
divide between my parents and me grew to the point we couldn't even
mention politics. They liked Mondale; I preferred Reagan. Now it was
their turn to be shocked.
Around the 1984 election, a friend invited me to watch Milos Forman's
film version of "Hair." The wild abandon with which the play's sexual
revolutionary crew carried out their lives in Sheep Meadow angered
and frightened me. How dare they shirk responsibility and dance about
Manhattan! "Free love" sounded like debauchery at the time to me.
Yet, a part of me secretly felt moved by the movie. Despite my
outward judgments about the subject matter, inside a deep resentment
boiled. My need for coordinated designer clothes and shiny shoes had
made my friends already see what I denied: I was gay. My right-wing
performance was a mask for my seething internalized homophobia.
Seeing the "American tribal love-rock musical" movie lit a spark that
set me free.
When I finally came out of the closet, my parents fully embraced me,
especially the man I used to mock because of his garishly colored
bell-bottomsmy step dad. Falling in and out of love softened my
harsh judgments about public displays of affection. These days, with
the country in two wars, peace marches no longer make me nervous.
They seem incredibly sane. I have changed so much over the years that
during this election, my family and I called each other during the
debates, rooting for Obama.
As the performance of "Hair" began its finale, a lithe dancer with
long straight hair pulled me onstage to dance. With a quick glance
back, I looked at my date, hoping to tell him with my eyes what I
knew in my heart: I wantedno, neededto dance to loud rock music
underneath the stars shining over Central Park. When he surprised me
by joining me in front of the band, I grabbed his hands. We started
to twirl to "The Age of Aquarius," each of us with feet together and
heads thrown back. The entire audience started grooving, many joining
us on stage. Without stopping for a breather, we continued moving our
bodies as "Let The Sunshine In" completed the show's final encore.
After the show, I kissed my same-sex date in public near the subway
at 14th St. and Eighth Ave. Later, when I described the evening to
them, my parents were so proud.
ATC does a fantastic job of giving 'Hair' new life--but the
production could have used a bit more spine
DECEMBER 11, 2008
By JAMES REEL
Hair is tremendously important in the history of American musical
theater. Opening on Broadway in 1968, it was one of the first real
rock musicals; it brought nudity and profanity to the stage; and it
left in its wake a series of court decisions that liberalized
American censorship laws.
Unfortunately, Hair is not a very good show. It features three or
four enduring songs, but its first act is an irremediable mess; its
characters have less depth than an R. Crumb cartoon; and its plot,
such as it is, boils down to a simple question: Should Claude burn
his draft card and continue to frolic with his hippie friends, or not?
Hair is not effective as an anti-war protest or a pro-love rally, yet
it will soon be revived on Broadway after a Central Park run this
past summer, and Arizona Theatre Company has mounted its own version
of the show.
However limp Hair may seem now, ATC has done a terrific job of giving
it new life and body. The large cast is tireless, enthusiastic,
vocally ebullient and so well-drilled by director David Ira Goldstein
and choreographer Patricia Wilcox that all the careful preparation
looks absolutely spontaneous. As good as all the various production
elements are, Abe Jacob's sound design deserves special praise: Every
word is clear across every inch of the stage, and the offstage band
sounds tight and well-projected, yet none of this is amplified to the
ear-splitting volume you get with the typical Andrew Lloyd Webber
show. At last, a rock musical you can hear in comfort.
Hair was never about making people comfortable, though; just the
opposite. After launching itself with "Aquarius," one of the most
stirring opening numbers in all musical theater, Hair degenerates
into a series of songs whose sole purpose is to offend the prim,
older-than-30 ticket-buyers of 1968. One is a catalog of recreational
drugs; the next is a list of sex acts, followed by a lively excursion
by a black performer into every racist epithet ever applied to
African Americans. (After calling himself a "colored spade" and many
worse things, Hud, played by the commanding Kyle Taylor Parker,
identifies himself also as "President of the United States ... of
Love." In the most moving moment of opening night, the audience cut
him off with sustained cheers after "President of the United States.")
There are a few none-too-convincingly simulated sex acts by fully
clothed performers, a bit of toking up and about 60 seconds of
full-frontal nudity by a dozen good-looking young men and women at
the close of Act 1. (Note to the wig mistress: Do something about all
those anachronistic landing strips; few hippie girls in 1968 would
have gone in for a bikini wax.)
Thus, Act 1 is about as sophisticated as a 4-year-old saying "poop"
repeatedly just to get a rise out of his parents. Nudity, profanity,
drugs and various kinds of hateful expression have been used to much
better and more pertinent effect during the past 40 years of theater;
Hair, on the other hand, looks like just another foul flasher on Times Square.
Which is too bad, because the creators of the show said they wanted
to explain their generation's concerns to Middle American
theatergoers. But as an explanation, Hair is remarkably inarticulate.
The kids turn on, tune in and drop out, but only one of them--the
activist Sheila, played by the sincere and strong-voiced Morgan
James--is really engaged in the betterment of society. The rest is
just the chaos that ensues from what George Carlin would have called
a "freak accident": Six freaks in a fan hit two freaks in a Volkswagen.
Not even such appealing and committed performers as Kyle Harris, Joey
Calveri and Michael Buchanan can make us care about the likes of
Claude, Berger and Woof, who strut around touting free love and free
grass without even trying to come to terms with their own substantial
character flaws. (To the authors' credit, not all is paradise in the
commune; threesomes lead to jealousy, and stoners can be unpredictable jerks.)
Things pick up in the second act, when it belatedly dawns on writers
Gerome Ragni and James Rado that they have some characters and a slim
thread of plot to work with, and Claude's indecision over how to
handle his draft notice creates greater dramatic tension. Claude's
final moments with the hippie tribe, when he is present with but
unseen by his friends, culminate in an arresting image and a
well-handled aftermath through the "Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine
In" sequence. But then everything is spoiled by a feel-good reprise
with the cast pulling audience members onto the stage to dance--a
potentially powerful conclusion ruined by the imposition of an
incongruous happy ending.
That's not the fault of the local production; it's embedded in the
show. What director Goldstein does deserve a slap for is chickening
out during the once-notorious flag scene. One of the big Hair
controversies 40 years ago was the show's alleged desecration of the
American flag. True, a couple of people do enter sort of wrapped in
the flag, but then the object is folded with the utmost dignity, a
sign of respect for the American nation. (Hair was
anti-establishment, but not anti-American.) In the Tucson production,
we see a flag with stars and stripes, but not in the configuration of
the real American flag.
So it's now OK to put a dozen naked people on stage and have them
sing about LSD and "niggers" and simulate group sex, but they can't
use a real flag in a manner that is actually reverent? (And so what
if it weren't?) Obviously, it's possible to mount a
once-controversial show, yet remain spineless.
presented by Arizona Theatre Company
Various times through Tuesday, Dec. 23
Temple of Music and Art
330 S. Scott Ave.
$31 to $68