Tomorrow evening, on Broadway, there opens a show which could not conceivably be presented on any British stage. Our taboo-ridden, body-resenting, swearword-worried theatre will be poorer for its self-denial. Hair described by its creators as "an American tribal love-rock musical" is the most refreshing, original and maverick entertainment I have seen here since West Side Story".
The finale of the first act may prove too much even for some shock-proof New Yorkers when it arrives. As a rather touchingly sweet and naive song called "Where Do I Go?" dies on a fall in the half-light, five noticeably virile and well endowed young men emerge from under a communal blanket and stand, totally naked, fronting the audience. ("Did you happen to notice whether any of them were jewish?" asked jack Benny in the interval at the preview.) Three or four (my eyes were too busy to count) beautifully sculptured young girls also appear, proudly bare to the navel, while another stands, uncovered, from head to heel, in half profile.
If this innocent and endearing tableau does not provoke indignation among a few first-nighters tomorrow, it will only be because the new york theatre has been on the bare buff kick for most of this season. Two years ago, when Peter Brook exposed a single male backside during the American production of Marat/Sade, several not obviously deprived (or depraved) playgoers accosted me in a great state of excitement to ask "Can you really, I mean really, see Ian Richardson's ass on the stage?"
In the last six months, there has been at least one naked front (waist-up female, off-Broadway) in Scuba-duba, one naked back (entire, female, on-Broadway) in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one naked back-front-and-sides (female, off-off-Broadway) served up on a platter, under a transparent cover, in The Christmas Turkey. In the trans-Atlantic version of LaMama company's Tom Paine, both men and women had a chance to show off - though in near darkness and behind potted palms.
The nude first-half curtain call is not the only obstacle to a London production of Hair. It was added to the show after it was conceived in the Open Theatre's Workshop where America Hurrah began, and after its Greenwich Village try-out at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, especially for Broadway. Nor are the freely spattered swear words absolutely essential - though I take them to be, as Dr. Johnson defined "bugger", simply, "terms of endearment" in their group.
Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the young authors of the book and lyrics who also play and sing the two leading roles, have toughened and sharpened their attack on an adult way of life they regard as cruel, hypocritical and selfish as they reach a wider audience. Originally supplied with twenty songs, it now has thirty-one and the new titles alone give a clue to Hair's tone and attitude - "Hashish", "Sodomy", "Colored Spade", "Prisoners In Niggertown", "You Are Standing On My Bed", "The Flesh Failures".
The dominating theme is the agony and ecstasy of total involvement with humanity - love for truth, love for peace, love for men and women, love for all races, love for sensuality, love for fantasy. It sounds simpleminded and childish. But Europeans, conditioned to picture America as a land of conformists and careerists, gunmen and ghettos, the rat-race and the riot, forget the heroic idealism at the heart of the national character.
Hair has scarcely any book - just a triangular menage made up of a girl who lives for protest, a boy who lives for sex, and a boy who lives for mysticism. A large, attractive, cheerful and tireless cast, os all sexes and colours, slip in and out of roles as adroitly as they slip in and out of bed. It is powered, as a true musical should be, by the impetus of its songs and dances.
The music of Galt MacDermot has a basic, insistent rock beat, sophisticated and refined, sweetened and saddened, by all kinds of plangent overtones which I am not equipped to identify. Sometimes it is sung by a high, lonely, pure soprano, sometimes chanted in a low, hoarse, sexy whisper. Sometimes it erupts as a full-bodied, choral crescendo, sometimes pumps out as commercial, pop-group ballad.
There is a song about the delight of smoking pot - "My Body Is Walking In Space"; about the joys of sexual freedom - "I reached it, he reached it, you reached it, we all reached the Climax"; about the amenities of New York - "Welcome sulfer-dioxide, Hello carbon-monoxide"; about the attractions of opposite colours -
White boys are so pretty,
Skin as smooth as milk,
White boys are so pretty,
Hair like shining silk,
When they touch my shooowoulder,
That's the touch that kills.
Black boys are delicious,
Chocolate flavored love,
Licorice lips like candy,
Keep my couple (sic) handy,
I have such a sweet tooth
When it comes to love.
The direction of Tom O'Horgan is as spectacular inventive and unpredictable as would be expected of a graduate from Cafe La Mama at last given a first-rate work to interpret. I found all the girls immediately sympathetic - supple-waisted, burning-eyed, moist-lipped maenads. The men took longer to adjust to with their tousled heads, sweating torsos and grubby feet.
But the most likable attribute of hair is the way it can mock its own pretensions, satirize its own philosophy, especially in the title song, a comic paean of self-admiration for "Long, beautiful, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, curly, fuzzy, znaggy (sic), shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy, down-to-there hair / like jesus wore it / hallelujah, I adore it / hair."
And so did I.
Copyright The London Sunday Times Company.