EVEN WHEN A GENERATION CAN’T HOLD UP,
ITS HAIR CAN
When Diane Paulus’s revival of Hair swooshed into the Pantages in 2012, it felt more like a cause for nostalgic partying than a recreation of the zeitgeist of the summer of love. Adam Shankman’s version which opened at the Hollywood Bowl last night is far better. He found a beating heart in this hopelessly dated “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” that seems to elude most productions. Those great tunes that captured in a bottle a generation lost in space are electrified by Shankman’s dazzling choreography and the exquisite characterizations from a stellar cast, which included Kristen Bell, Sarah Hyland, Hunter Parrish, Benjamin Walker, Jonah Platt, Jenna Ushkowitz, Kevin Chamberlin, and Beverly D’Angelo (who appeared in the film version).
You can still see why the original had taken the theatre world by storm: It gave a palatable, exuberant, and tuneful voice to the contentious counter-culture revolution (it also helped that a beautiful, young cast bared more than their souls), and the score (music by Galt MacDermot, lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) holds up remarkably well. Were this three-night run in an intimate theater instead of the Bowl, where pea-sized performers who look like an ant colony forced almost 18,000 spectators to watch giant screens instead of the stage, I would see it again. The show often felt as far away from me as the ideals of 1967.
Most of what made Hair a phenomenon in 1967 remains intact here, but the show is now a period piece, a fantasy about a commune-as-society—a society which discovered that the idealistic flowers in its hair wilted and died because they could not take root in reality.
As I mentioned in my review of Paulus’s version, a 1977 revival of Hair on Broadway received more pans than Julia Childs’ kitchen. By that time, the zeitgeist of hippie activism had already been exorcised: Homosexuality had been removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses; sexual liberation was in full swing; the Vietnam War was over; and no youth were dying in the Cold War. Even audiences inured to the ubiquitous yellow smiley face found Hair ponderously trite and moralizing. The message of sexual diversity and “turn-on, tune-in and drop-out” had faded; the theme was too dated to be relevant and too recent to be nostalgic, so it folded after 43 performances. Douglas Watt in the Daily News said, “It’s gone, kids, gone, lost in a marijuana cloud as we tiptoe uncertainly through the saintly ‘70s.”
Now that we live in a world of armchair activists who lack an ideological vision, Hair is a reminiscence of an era when people actually did something about society’s ills more than Tweet about them. It’s a blast from the past with an idealistic bent (free love and excellent drug trips) that remains appealing, not just for adults but today’s youth—a generation lost in a different kind of space: cyperspace. But thanks to the media’s volcanic output, the issues of an unpopular war, sexual freedom, drug use, irreverence toward religion, and nudity in the theatre are no longer shocking (the stars do not disrobe in this version). Still, signs at the Bowl’s entrances offer a tongue-in-cheek warning: “Includes simulated drug use, brief nudity, profanity, questioning of religion, blatant sexual positioning, refusal of authority, energy, love, beads, flowers and happiness … so enjoy!” This sign was as applicable to easily offended old folks as it was to those lighting up joints in the smoking section.
While Shankman has magically managed to highlight themes of revolt and revolution, he has also included an incongruous patina of gay freedom. As much as hippies fought for free love, the man-on-man smooches and humping seen at the Bowl would never have occurred in 1967 in public, let alone on stage (I actually confirmed this with a member of one of the original casts who was in attendance last night).
So, unlike 1977 audiences, Baby Boomers may encounter a warm wave of reminiscence watching this Hair, and younger audiences may relate to the angst that comes with inheriting a societal mess from know-it-all parents. Ultimately, I suggest you enjoy the fantasy of it all: There’s no way in hell that hippies were all so buff and attractive, but what do I care? I wanted to sleep with everyone on that stage, and I left humming the tunes as well as their bodies.
photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging
The Hollywood Bowl
ends on August 3, 2014
for tickets, visit Hollywood Bowl