“Our eyes are open, our eyes are open” —Hair
The boom generation seems to be everywhere lately. Well, they’ve been everywhere since 1945—ubiquity is what makes them a boom generation. But now they’re coming to the end of the line; the last of their parents are dying off and everybody knows who’s next. So the summing up, the nostalgia, the historicizing have begun. If I want, I can listen to nothing but 60s pop on Sirius. AMC’s Mad Men has moved into psychedelia. What’s more, in the space of just a few weeks at the theater I’ve seen the Stonewall riot reenacted, the founding of Motown Records replayed, old rock-operatic Andrew Lloyd Webber restaged, and Jack Lemmon’s AARP-qualified son, Chris, recounting his troubled childhood with dad. The fact that Chris Lemmon and I are the same age may make me especially sensitive to this sort of thing. Still, I’d say a trend is confirmed when somebody goes so far as to bring back Hair.
And American Theater Company has brought back Hair with a vengeance. Certainly, the “American tribal love-rock musical” has been sufficiently codified and commodified over the years that the mere fact of a new staging doesn’t necessarily signify. There’ve been three major revivals since the show first hit Broadway in 1968, and a jolly touring version caravanned through Chicago three years ago. ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli has bypassed the standard-issue Hairs, however, reaching back to the original iteration that Joseph Papp produced off-Broadway in 1967 and working it over with the help of surviving coauthor James Rado.
In my review of the 2011 tour I wished that someone would come up with a new way to present the iconic musical about a tribe of New York dropouts and Yippies (i.e., politicized dropouts): one that would evoke the Vietnam-era counterculture rather than simply imitate it, even if that meant dumping the fur vests and feathers. Purveying sweet-faced flower children whose idea of transgression consists of getting people to dance onstage, that show came across as both fake and false. “There must be a way,” I wrote, “to make it new again.” Paparelli doesn’t make anything new here, doesn’t even try. His Hair is locked into 1967 so firmly that the actors won’t tolerate anachronistic talk during their preshow banter with the audience.
He goes for making it vital instead.
Succeeds, too. The reversion to Rado and Gerome Ragni’s pre-Broadway text means that unfamiliar songs are sung and strange conceits pursued. Drugs are explored much more extensively—not to say vividly—in a long hallucinatory passage. Paparelli even brings back the lost idea that a central tribe member, Claude, believes he’s a martian. (Interesting, by the way, that Mad Men character Michael Ginsberg believes the same thing.) Yet that in itself isn’t what gives this Hair its vitality. What really does it is rage—especially political rage.
A sharpened story line revolves around actions tribe members take against the Vietnam war—and, more specifically, around the crisis Claude (Zach Kenney) undergoes as he deals with the imminent possibility of getting drafted. Activist Sheila (Ella Raymont) enthuses over Abbie Hoffman’s Pentagon levitation, sure, but she also talks about getting gassed and suffers along with other tribe members when demonstration-busting cops pull out the billy clubs. African-American member Hud (Aaron Holland) clearly isn’t kidding around as he sings the opening lines—”I’m a colored spade, a nigger, a black nigger”—of “Colored Spade.”
The grit of the tribe’s squat—a filthy Alphabet City loft (incredibly well designed by Keith Pitts) where everybody fucks and sleeps on mattresses that make your skin crawl—intensifies the darkness, rendering the possibility of the sun shining in both literally and figuratively remote. The same applies to certain performances. Sky Seals plays tribal clown Berger as a nasty piece of work with undertones of sociopathy. Mary Hollis Inboden’s pregnant Jeanie is a pathetic soul who makes you want to slap and hug her at the same time as she sends every kind of pill, smoke, and alcohol into the bloodstream she shares with her baby. Christian Libonati’s Woof evokes a sad vulnerability in his attempts to master the shame he feels at being gay.
I suppose I should feel for them, and in a way I do. But part of the rage of this rawer, truer Hair is knowing, from the vantage point of the present, what will likely become of these brave and frightening bohemians. Most of the survivors will get tired and go back to school. They’ll fulfill their class destinies. The economy will crash, the oligarchy will ascend, the political system will devolve, the environment will degrade, poverty will become permanent, war will become permanent—all while they watch. These kids were already dead and didn’t know it, way back then. Now they—we—know it.