Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair …
It was a perfect spring afternoon in London when I went to see this new Diane Paulus production of the iconic swinging sixties musical “Hair” starring American 2009 Tony Award ® winning actor Will Swenson (Berger) along with Tony ® nominated actor Gavin Creel (Claude). I spent the afternoon in a pleasant amble around in Soho – browsing in Carnaby Street – before going to the Gielgud Theatre and revisiting my misspent youth. It brought back some kind memories for me. I was one of the hated ‘tribe’ of hippies. I remember my Dad telling me not to go out in the street wearing my love beads around my neck because they made me “look like a proper poof” (his words). Ah the sixties! This musical takes me back. I also remember when I finally cut my hair (like the character Claude has to do) and the look of sadness upon my father’s face when he realized that the free and innocent creature he had once loved was gone forever. It is an irony of the age that men and women like my Dad fought in the Second World War for freedom and for love yet looked on in despair when the fruits of that hard won freedom was a generation that was actually acting ‘freely’ – protesting against the ‘rules’ of a regimented society (in a gentle non-confrontational way) and seeking approval for their mantras of love, peace and harmony and the ‘abandonment’ of the materialistic world
There have been several attempts to reincarnate this rock musical – most fail – but this is, I believe, the right time to re-watch those hippies and what they represented and to sit back and enjoy the show. Although I was familiar with the musical, I was still surprised at how everything seemed to be so relevant. Subjects stand out like anti-war, pro-drugs, the results of ‘guilt free love’ and racial harmony and all have currency today. It is worth remembering how important and innovative this show was originally, with black and white actors on stage at the same time – sharing equal billing -long before anyone could imagine a man like Barack Obama would be living in the WHITEhouse. Eventually, skin-heads, punks and a New Wave of working class culture killed off the ‘middle class’ hippies (contrary to popular myth they were not all exterminated at the Altamont Free Concert of 1969.) And this musical was lost along-the-way, lost in the same way as our ideals for peace and love and our cheese-cloth shirts, cow-bells and Afghan coats. But the legacy of the Hippie culture still lives on and is found in environmental consciousness, whole food shops, music festivals, new age travellers, sexual liberation and tolerance, LGBT communities, ‘world’ music, and even the journey into cyberspace.
Claude, and his mate Berger, like all their friends of the tribe, struggle to balance the ideals of love, peace and harmony against a backdrop of the Vietnam war and those conservative middle-class parents (like my Dad) who think that the kids should have a wash, grab a haircut, land a job and just bloody well conform. The story is based around the decision that Claude faces – should he cut off his hair and go to Nam or should he dodge the draft and burn his papers? The consequences of both choices may well result in the ruining of his life (he may face a prison sentence for burning his papers – but at least he would be alive and unwounded. ) The tribe doesn’t have much but they do have each other and they have got their shared love. So they make love not war. And they ask us to give peace a chance.
“I got my feet
I got my toes
I got my liver
Got my blood”
The music by Canadian composer, Galt MacDermot – the Bantu beats and the funky rock n roll tunes, don’t necessarily conjure up memories of Sixties hippy music. For me, then, my music of choice was Jefferson Airplane, but I also liked the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Bob Dylan. In the musical there is no psychedelic rock or hard blues – though the cast talk about it plenty. (Though there was a nod to Jimi’s Star Spangled Banner.) Even critics at the time thought that the show music did not accurately reflect the counter-culture of rock. But the music of Hair is firmly in the tradition of big belting
show-tunes and musical barn-storming stompers. And the songs are good. “Aquarius” still makes my hair stand on end – and “Let the Sunshine In” [ a hit single for 5th Dimension] is still as gob-smackingly beautiful as ever. Other stand out songs are the Blur-ish ditty “Manchester, England, England” sung by Claude and the blaxploitation songs of Dionne (Sasha Allen) black boys / white boys (“ white boys are so pretty… ”)
In “The Trip” scene Buddhist monks, Catholic Nuns, Red Indians, Viet soldiers and even astronauts get involved in the slaughter of the innocent. It was no surprise to find that director Diane Paulus has also worked on dramatic operas like ‘Turandot’ because this scene and the ‘Eyes Look Your Last’ were visually stunning as well as emotionally moving musical masterpieces. Thanks must also be given to Karole Armitage for the breathtaking choreography.
Certainly, looking back, hippies were full of sh ** – gathering bits of religion along the way, with astrology and mysticism often as an excuse for sexual abandon, drug use and general laziness. Amongst the freedoms enjoyed during the Summer of Love was the freedom of nudity – and Hair still contains elements of this, but it now seems more artistic and almost twee against our modern ‘porn flick’ sensitivity. Previous Hair nudists have included (in no particular order) Paul Nicholas, Richard O’Brien, Elaine Paige and Tim Curry. Meat Loaf, Curved Air’s Sonja Kristina and even Donna Summer and Liz Mitchell (of Boney M) in a German production. The full-frontal nudity in the 2010 version is neatly and appropriately performed, swathed in gentle warm light – just before the interval – just seconds long. If you are thinking of going to see the show just ‘for an
eyeful’ then think again- the nudity is – shall we say – tame, by modern standards.
I recommend this production for a loving, warm and passionate evening of pure entertainment. Like the posters say, “Feel The Love” …
Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees …. Hair!