Hair Dazzles Broadway

Acid redux! The Hair revival opened on Broadway last night, and is newly relevant in a post-Obama America. Lee Siegel reports on the protest musical, and how we are still in the Age of Aquarius.

04.01.09 1:33 PM ET

That “populist revolt,” which you hear about in the media, but which no one has actually seen, is finally breaking out in New York City on a near-nightly basis. It’s called Hair, takes place in a theater, not in the streets, and is driven by opposition to the Vietnam War, hypocritical adults, organized religion, racism, and pollution, and by a passionate defense of sex and drugs.

In other words, the 1968 Broadway production of Hair is being revived on Broadway in 2009 at a time when every issue that animated the play has been—in the musical’s own perspective—happily resolved. There is almost universal opposition to the war in Iraq, the “Generation Gap” has been replaced by parents jostling with their children for space on Facebook, our president is black, and just about everybody is “green.” As for sex and drugs... well, go refill your prescription and I’ll get mine, let’s email each other some pictures of ourselves naked, and if we both like what we see, why don’t we meet for a drink later tonight.

Hair tells us that though technology might well have divided us, there is a primal human need to be physically attached to great emotions and high ideals.

And yet so far, audiences and critics love the revival—and when it ran for a short time at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park last summer as part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series, crowds gathered at dawn to get tickets. It’s a puzzle, all right. Why Hair? And why now?

A little bit of history: Though its nudity and frank adversarialism provoked controversy when the musical first opened, Hair appeared at a time when the counterculture and its commercial assimilation were happening simultaneously. Just one year later, in 1969, Oh! Calcutta! and Dionysus in ’69 both opened off-Broadway, but the former was headed for Broadway—where it landed three years later—while the latter, to this day, could never be assimilated by any theater north of 14th street.

Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! replaced Hair’s youthful idealism with sophisticated irony and cynicism, and instead of merely showing nudity, it portrayed naked actors simulating sex on stage. Richard Schechner, The Performance Group's producer and director, offered up a loose adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae with Dionysus in ‘69—and it was even more graphic in its portrayal of nudity and sex, untamed by anything like polish and sophistication. Hair, with its singable, soulful melodies and its sentimental storyline—make love, not war—and with its assault on its audiences’ unexamined values, smoothly fused middle-class with outlaw sentiments. Nowadays, when radical pieties about sex and society have merged almost completely into commercial pieties about same, Hair is the perfect entertainment for audiences that are both gratified and discontent.

Then, too, America, with its short history, is in love with the past, and the “revival” is a national style. From retro ovens, clothes and furniture, to the endless recycling of the past into entertainment— Milk, Frost/Nixon—to proliferating family dynasties in politics and Hollywood, we use culture to create the illusion of immortality. No style or personality, it seems, dies that cannot be revived in one form or another.

After all, another revival of a great American musical is now taking place right down the street from Hair. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story has been drawing crowds and raking in the bucks, even in this battered economy, for weeks. Like Hair, West Side Story is also emblematic of its age. Opening in 1957, it tackled the reality of ethnic strife at a time when America’s self-image as a “melting pot” was beginning to be exposed as a something like a myth. Its tragic ending is really a type of hopefulness; the very fact of love between Tony and Maria means that the social conflicts that kept them apart will shortly be healed.

Hair ends on the same upbeat note, though the new production seems to have replaced the original Broadway production’s upbeat ending with the original off-Broadway version’s grimmer conclusion (from what I understand, Claude, who has been drafted, lives in the upbeat version and dies in the darker one). As the cast sings “Let the Sunshine In” around Claude’s lifeless body, you feel that sunshine—a new harmonious age—is right around the corner. The idea, presented by both musicals, that the crisis-ridden present will eventually become a peaceful and happy past, celebrated on stage and in song, has an obvious appeal. It reminds us that we’ve won before, just when we feel that we’re losing now.

But the most heartening thing about Hair’s contemporary appeal and apparent success was foreseen by the play’s creators. For Hair is, perhaps most of all, about the original communal power of theater itself. At a moment when people who work in or simply love the theater are worrying—along with just about everybody else in every other industry and medium—that the digital age is making the stage obsolete, this musical makes the opposite statement.

Hair tells us that though technology might well have divided us to the point that claims of “populist revolt” seem like absurd fabrications, there is a primal human need to be physically attached to great emotions and high ideals. It tells us that true protest and true affirmation are the stuff of culture, and that culture is made by individuals but shared and understood by communities—and that in the midst of economic and political despair, an artistic Renaissance might well be just around the corner. Now, if only someone would write a soaring, searing, exuberant musical about what we are living through today, rather than what happened over 40 years ago.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.