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Hair on Broadway: Radical Vaudeville

The summer of 2009 was the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock and the end of the sixties. It was also a short summer in New York City. Storms and gray skies reigned over the city for much of the months of June, July and August; but for those still hoping to let the sun shine in a little longer (figuratively or metaphysically) there is one way to reheat the memories of summers’ past: the current Broadway revival of Hair.

Set during the infamous “Summer of Love” of 1967, Diane Paulus’ staging of the Tony-winning musical by Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, has a giant sun painted on the back of the theater wall and it is hard not to be warmed by its rays which are metaphorically brought to life by the classic songs and a young, energetic cast.

The legendary original production of Hair began at the downtown Public Theatre in 1967 and then went to Broadway the following April where it ran for four years; this production debuted last summer in Central Park before re-opening on Broadway in March. Seeing the show outside at the Delacorte last summer was an odd experience. It seemed as if the park should have been the perfect place to experience the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” but in fact Hair seemed to dissipate in the open air. The staging felt like a museum piece: a rally or “sit-in” restaged decades later, Hair in the park, even accompanied by a rock band, still gave off the whiff of a civil war re-enactment. There was a solemnity to the proceedings, as if there was something sacred about playing hippies in Central Park. Hair is not sacred though—it’s an unabashedly profane musical, and a musical is by its nature a commercial proposition. (The history of how Hair evolved into an era-defining, mega-hit, is less a story of communal artistry, but rather a tale of some very shrewd business decisions and old-school show-biz chutzpah.)

A year after its Central Park “be-in,” in the confines of the Al Hirschfield theater, Hair can be performed and seen for what it is: an old fashioned vaudeville dressed up in the garb and styles of the late 1960’s.

The mythology of the show is that it was a visionary, new work that brought Rock-N-Roll to Broadway. It did do the latter, but it did this using one of show business’s oldest forms: a song-and-dance show. Hair broke little new ground theatrically and was (and is still) not a great musical. The arc of the narrative is halting and hazy; the songs have little thematic or musical continuity—and the characters are types rather than people.

HairThe current cast—none of whom were born in the 1960’s and have to affect the poses and slang of that era like kids putting on mom and dad’s clothes—make this clear. At times the mini-scenes and numbers feel like a high school talent show—the young performers strutting their stuff and pretending to be bohemians. This is not a bad thing for two reasons. Some talent shows (ones that do feature, truly talented individuals) are shamelessly fun; and what this Broadway production makes clear is that that’s all Hair ever was. It wasn’t truth, it wasn’t poetry, it was a hoary entertainment with catchy songs that was the right show at the right time.

HairSo Hair may not be great art, but when performed well (as history tells us it was in the 1960’s, and as it is in sporadic bursts at the Hirschfield today) Hair can be great entertainment. Megan Lawrence, in two roles (Mother and Buddhadalira) is a stand out in the cast—and she exemplifies the vaudevillian spirit of the show. Andrew Kober is also a hoot as “Father” and in the drag role of Margaret Mead. Sasha Allen has an expansive voice and a certain shaman-like stage presence as Dionne. She sings the opening number and signature song, “Age of Aquarius,” with authority. Also Brianna Carlson-Goodman sings “Frank Mills” with a straightforward clarity that gives it the feeling of a fine piece of short fiction. The best number in the show though is the title track, which has the cast running and jumping in the aisles of the theater. There’s a lot of these kind of antics and audience interaction (as always, the viewers are invited to get on stage and dance after the curtain call) throughout the show, but in “Hair” it works.

Not everything in the show works of course. Like an old vaudeville review, the enjoyment of Hair lies in the ability of a few, quality acts and the professionalism and dedication of the performers to make you ignore the sub-par bits and win you over in the end. “I Got Life” is one of those quality numbers and along with “Hair” and a handful of others, it outshines some of the more dated or stale bits. It also says aloud the highest compliment one can give to any production of this big, shaggy, pop classic: it still does got life.

Images: (top) The cast of the Broadway revival of HAIR, (bottom) Sasha Allen as Dionne (center) and the cast of the Broadway revival of HAIR. Photos by Joan Marcus.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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