To see the photo that originally accompanied this article click here.
When Walter Kerr typified twentieth century man as standing with fists clenched, saying "Why can't I feel anything?" he might have been talking about the present theatrical panic about "involving" the audience, of shattering their reserve and making the audience also perform. This unrealistic separation of thought and feeling has flipped the theatre into a visceral, intestinal orgy which offers dazed exhaustion at the expense of enlightenment.
One major involving element is music with its basically direct and emotional appeal, and Broadway has been quick to cash in on the commercial aspects of momentary participation. The current lure with the added attraction of shock and rock music is, of course, Hair.
This is not to say that Hair is not a welcome relief in some ways. After a century of theatrical social thinking followed by Brechtian social analysis, the theatre needs to reclaim some of its role of ritually expressing social communion and contact. This does not mean a return to the primitive magic circle in the forest or a resort to "found theatre" inn daily life. The great theatre eras have given a heightened and compressed view of man's experience, and even in this day of experiment and re-examination of theatrical roles and structures, we do expect that a theatre experience will somehow be different from wandering past a group freaking out in the Village - with music. And it is here that hair disappoints our expectations. We are not seeking an ecstatic revel, but a celebration which intellectually and emotionally speaks to us of the experience of being alive.
Hair does have merit - it is exciting and generally succeeds in catching up the audience in rhythm of the experience, if not in actual awareness of what is going on. It is topical, treating contemporary youth or some of them, which is at least a welcome switch from the Broadway preoccupation with middle age trauma. And it is energetic, though the actual purpose and point of all the activity frequently escapes one.
Of course, an obvious use for the music was the creation of atmosphere and ritual effect, and Hair takes to it beautifully. Ritually, the opening of the show was most effective with a slow ballet of bodies, young bodies exulting in the possibilities of being alive. The extended electric blended into the anthems of peace ("Aquarius") and protest ("Ain't Got No" - "I Got Life") which provided a tight, visually and aurally satisfying evocation of the world out of which Hair would grow. Only Hair did not grow from this point, it simply saturated with sound and activity. The ritual descends into gesture, becomes gimmick, and finally expires in the hollow feeling of truth evaded , or worse glimpsed and then burried by a fuzzy on-stage manner and an imprecise sense of direction.
From the original musical introduction to individuals we are tossed into a fifty-person chorus line which shouts ideas and slogans with great enthusiasm which the audience does not share. Of course plenty has been said about shocking the audience, but I was more amused than shocked by their tactics. The ideas and language of hair have been in the atmosphere for quite a while. The language of a Lenny Bruce and the physical realism of foreign films made these shock elements well publicized gimmicks, not new revelations.
At times, genuine hints of anger about the war and the race situation came through, but for me these were severely undercut by being thrown in with every other current gripe from air pollution to the use of euphemism. When every point is made with equal energy, the result is a kind of blurred anti-campaign. We are for this, against that, but with no sense of priorities or of relative seriousness.
Sadly, the music encourages this blurring effect. It is loud, all around you and remarkably familiar, not only in terms of rhythm and instrumentation but also in terms of frank imitations of past and current rock groups. The imitation is generally effective (especially in "Abie Baby") but becomes camp when applied to the Supremes and undercut by stage gimmicks. Can anyone believe a song about inter-racial sex when the performers are in a fun house three-in-one-dress which stretches in bright pink directions as they move? Partially undercut by gimmick, the music and lyrics additionally suffer from a wall of sound effect. Ignoring dynamics completely (could it have been my imagination that everything was done at the same volume?) the music wraps itself around you. The lyrics tend to be overwhelmed.
The musical problem would be solved by some attention to allowing the audience to hear the music instead of being submerged in it. The larger problem however is making sure that what the audience will hear is worth listening to. If the theatre with rock is to be no more than a rock concert with scenery, then Hair is the prototype of what we can expect for the next few years. It does seem ironic, however, that just as recording musicians become concerned with w total texture for an album that the theatre would abandon itself to rock mixtures and madness.
Equally problematic is that for all of Hair's claims to non-structured spontaneity, there is a rudimentary plot. Plot is not necessarily a neat little diagram, but a pattern of illumination of events and/or people. The original Hair seems to have had some of this, if only because it did not attempt to include a world view within a singspiel form. It was content to sketchily examine the relationships among Claude, Sheila, Berger and the rest of the individuals who live within the atmosphere. At the risk of second-guessing the authors, there seemed a definite note that somewhere the love generation had failed itself, that the gap between the old and new values is not as great as we would like to believe. Or, more directly, that the human animal with long hair can be cruel and unfeeling as well as well as the short haired variety; that loneliness in a mob is still the chronic condition. Perhaps the original Hair was just as intestinal in appeal as its half Broadway-brother, but the singular merit in doing Hair at all would be to look at the hippie experience and see how it reflects upon the Establishment and its own subculture which is so richly revealed in the music itself. Hair feinted in this direction originally, and then the Broadway chance came, and revision set in.
Why was this reduction of plot supposed to be an improvement? Evidently no one was sure that they could do without the the plot altogether, so tantalizing plot fragments remain scattered through the evening. Ostensibly, this is about a guy who is going to be drafted, who is given the choice between two lifestyles, and cannot decide ("Where Do I Go?"). He is searching for answers while the other tribe members seem to be searching for love. And this love is not the non-individual "all mankind" sort either. Crissy sings of a specific "Frank Mills" and Sheila challenges Berger in particular for his insensitivity to friends' needs while caring about social injustice ("Easy To BE Hard").
Supposedly, Claude and Sheila end up together, but then Claude is drafted. Returning to the tribal ground with short hair and an army uniform, Claude is not dead physically but socially. Without hair he is out of uniform, and the tribe is no more able than the society it condemns to see beyond symbols to people. Ironically, Claude's new uniform gives him his earlier desire - to be invisible; but neither uniform has been able to give him the answers he sought. Like that bolder generation, he seems to have reached a premature "Dead End."
In the depiction of the reality behind the publicity stereotypes that gives the idea of a Hair validity; without this sense of artistic reality, Hair can only claim to have enhanced the gutsy effect of the theatre by eliminating the possibility of thought. The praises for innovation which is only fashion fade quickly, and Hair will not even claim to be the first rock musical, when enough people remember Bye, Bye Birdie.
Its lasting value will be determined by its ability to convince that rock can be a powerful force in the theatre. Of course the easiest and most American way of side-tracking revolution is to embrace it, and the theatre as a self-perpetuating institution will try to do just that. It would be unfortunate, however, to see rock dragged screaming into the theatre, only to come out "theatrical." And that is what will happen if rock becomes the gimmick or symbol of contemporary realism instead of a contributor to the theatre experience. What rock has to give is not pulsing sound which could be as easily gained through native drums; rather it can provide the balance of thought and emotion for the theatre that it has discovered for it's own enrichment. Uniting the qualities of intense involvement with close observation of the current scene, rock can amplify and expand the classical situation into a relevant theatrical moment.
Nor is this idle or idealistic speculation. Galt MacDermot, composer of Hair, also provided the musical settings for Joseph Papp's production of Hamlet as a Happening. There was music to change the set and a final chorus, but the most impressive work was done for Ophelia's mad scene. Anyone who has sat through it knows that the songs are seldom illuminating unless you happen to be up on bawdy Elizabethan innuendo. Working closely with the text of the song, MacDermot created a rock transformation of the material. When Ophelia appeared in a chorus girls abbreviated tails and straw hat, backed by eight GI's, to sing "Hamlet's Dead And Gone, Baby," you had a fair idea why she would end up dead. Perhaps as a result of this close work with Hamlet, "What A Piece Of Work Is man" is included in the revised hair as counterpoint to "3500," which details the horrors of war. Another MacDermot musical is scheduled for the coming season, hopefully not a third revision of Hair, but an indication of his considerable talent for competent rock in a theatrical context.
Or, his success may encourage those who are currently examining and glorifying life in the rock concerts and the recording studios to turn to the creation of rock theatre. If theatre theorists could write seventy years ago of the power of music to unite the arts, it seems natural that the wide-ranging music of today should should be used to bind up the conflicts in today's theatrical trials of emotional and mental polarization.
Copyright Straight Arrows publishing.