Turning Them On

Actress Marg Helgenberger arrives at the 32nd Annual People's Choice Awards at the Shrine Auditorium Jan. 10, 2006 in Los Angeles. GETTY IMAGES/Frazer Harrison


Third Eye Repertory  
Matt Walton and Alyssa Claar star in the New York revival of Hair.

 

(CBS)March marks the 30th
anniversary of the Broadway production of Hair, and while the Age of Aquarius has come and gone, the "tribal love-rock musical" is a cultural icon, conjuring images of hippies and spiritual vibrations and political and cultural revolt.

Even those who have never seen the musical or worn a flower in their hair are familiar with Hair and may even be able to hum a few bars of the theme song. Everywhere, Daddy, Daddy.


An Experimental Piece

Hair was first performed at The Public Theater in the newly-restored Astor Library in October, 1967. The show was co-written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, two out-of-work actors, joined by composer Galt MacDermott. Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, sought to attract a younger audience to the stuffy world of 1960s musicals. In Hair, he found a decidedly "experimental" piece.

After a brief run at the Astor, Michael Butler, a multi-millionaire from Chicago, bought the production and moved Hair to Cheetah, a nightclub in midtown Manhattan. In danger of closing after a harried run, Butler financed the move up to Broadway's Biltmore Theater, where it would play to more than 1,700 audiences before closing in 1972.

No Long-Hairs Here
Hair attempted to tackle the social and political controversies of the late 1960s, viewed through the exuberant eyes of the hippies. It is the tale of a young man who, on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, falls in with the hippie subculture of New York's East Village.

Its bylaws of peace, love, tolerance, and spiritual and sexual liberation have all become era-associated buzzwords. However, setting this material in a Broadway venue - what Marilyn Bender of the New York Times called the "last stronghold of middle class squeamishness" - was a bold move.

Both its message and its means clashed with Broadway convention. The now-famous nudity at the end of the first act, the cursing, the explosion of rock-inspired numbers, and the almost interactive staging were a far cry from L'il Abner.

The inevitable occurred: road tours of Hair ran into a host of censorship attempts in cities from Chattanooga to Boston.

But aside from a small clan of hard-core conservatives, mainstream audiences were charmed. Not merely the rallying cry of rebellious youth, Hair "turned on" multiple generations.

James Rado recalls that even in its Off-Broadway days, the audience ws largely mainstream: "No long hairs. Just your regular theatergoing audience." What exactly they were "turned on" to is up for debate.

Weekend Hippies
A 1968 Playbill article attempted to explain the appeal: "A larger part of you is wishing you were flying forty feet through the air on a rope, flowers stuck behind your ear, like that guy with the hairy armpits." To some, it may have been a momentary respite from the restraints of bourgeois life, a chance to indulge in the hip for a few fleeting hours.

By the time Hair opened in Chicago, it had moved from Off-Broadway to the society pages, literally. We find the opening night described in the Chicago Sun Times Family Magazine: "A young man in a Sioux suit and love paint grinned, 'Look at these people, coming to see the freaks.' He must have been disappointed with Gingy Cochrane, who was with it in elegantly chic evening pants. She and her husband Jim came with the Henry Richardsons." To the Henry Richardsons, Hair was the talk of the town.

Weekend Hippies
Whether the musical was of real social and artistic import beyond trendy entertainment is another issue. If generations were turned on when the lights went down, did they stay turned on? Or was it simply a a sort of giddy curiosity, a chance to see what those crazy kids were up to? For the youth of that generation, was it an excuse to play "weekend hippie" and indulge in the ebullience that the show portrays as the essence of hippiedom?

Whatever the reason, any Broadway show's days are numbered, and by 1972, box office sales had slowed down at the Biltmore. Touring companies had reached such far-off locales as Australia. The soundtrack, released soon after the arrival on Broadway, had become a pop hit.

In 1979, a movie version directed by Milos Forman and starring Treat Williams and Beverly D'Angelo kept the multimedia flame alive.

New Age Aquarius
As a musical, Hair may be left to the Age of Aquarius. A Broadway revival attempt in 1977 closed after 43 shows. Its music is a staple of oldies radio menus. The youth of today, while familiar with the name, merely know it as a piece of cultural candy.

Original co-author Rado has spent the past nine years revising the musical and experimenting with new formats in productions abroad. A current Off-Broadway revival at New York's Third Eye Repertory, with re-written book and new lyrics, is sold out for the length of its run.

Today's young people are skeptical about the good vibrations of stereotypical hippiedom, and even more skeptical about musical theater, as evidenced by this notice in Time Out New York, a popular cultural events magazine: "Even if the music always nauseated you. Hair possesses enough cultural touchstones to keep you staring in wild wonder. After all, it set the tone for Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, though that may or may not be a good thig." Subtext: it's kitschy, baby.

But Rado is optimistic. Confident in Hair's ability to portray the struggle of youth culture and aware that for some, the musical may simply represent an opportunity for nostalgia, Rado welcomes a range of responses: "Whether it takes them back in history to relive that era or whether it means something today to those who didn't live then, you're getting a mixed audience and you're getting different emotional reactions, but they're all really emotional. It's an amazement to me."


Counterculture On Broadway /

Boho For Rent / Counterculture Avenue



Written by Steven Shaklan with graphic design by Laura Holder and Chris Larson
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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