Before seeing the ever-popular rock musical Hair, now playing at The Orpheum, it’s worth remembering that the show first opened on Broadway in 1968, a full eight years before the Vietnam War ended, and less than a year after San Francisco’s infamous Summer of Love, in 1967.
Though it’s become the most nostalgic musical in Broadway history, there was nothing remotely romantic or nostalgic about Hair when it opened. It was, rather, a remarkable cry of cultural distress—something new, strange, and a little bit scary. After all, the late 1960s and early 1970s was the closest the U.S. has come to experiencing a violent social revolution since the Civil War. Race riots, an unpopular war, and an increasingly aggressive draft are the back-drop against which the musical is set, all of which meant that the kids of that time were experiencing a common shared emotion: pure, nerve-rattling terror.
The fear has dissipated since then, leaving in its wake a romanticized view of hippie-dom that tends to focus on the more recreational side of youthful rebellion (i.e., drugs, sex, and music). Hair itself has contributed to the relentless mocking and trivialization of the era as well, by becoming the original high-school musical. Campy, poorly sung versions of Hair are the norm, reducing what was once a poignant social barometer of the times to a kitschy pastiche of counter-cultural clichés. Consequently, what people remember about Hair is the fashion, the songs, and the nude scene (or lack thereof); what they tend to forget about is the second act.
That’s when Claude, the most conflicted member of the hippie tribe, has a bad trip and all his fears of being drafted and killed in a senseless war erupt out of his troubled subconscious. This harrowing extended scene, portrayed in the touring show with a spectacularly deft balance between horror and dark humor, is the true heart of Hair . Without it, you just have a bunch of long-haired, colorfully dressed actors running around singing about everything from sodomy and masturbation to LSD and astral projection. None of it makes sense without the fear of being conscripted by your government to fight a war you don’t believe in, and the terrifying knowledge that you will almost certainly die. But with the fear, it all makes perfect sense.
The big difference between now and then, of course, is the draft. Think how different a country this would be right now if young people from every strata of American society were being drafted and forced to go fight in Iraq and Afghanistan? If that ever happened, Wisconsin would not be the only state in the country with people shouting in the streets. Hair is woefully thin on plot, and the singing is almost constant, but in this version, directed by Diane Paulus, the emotions that leak through the all-too-familiar soundtrack are disconcertingly real. These are idealistic kids who grew up believing they were special and had fantastic futures ahead of them—because that's what they were told. They believe all that talk about American freedom. Then, at the moment they are ready to embrace their future, the U.S. government steps in and re-routes them onto a road to almost certain death.
The song "Let the Sunshine In" is generally thought of as a happy, joyful tune. But in this production, as in the original, it's practically a dirge. The "tribe" is packed together on a cold, snowy night. Behind them, their friend Claude—the only one of them not to burn his draft card—lies prostrate in his army uniform, a corpse lying on an American flag. The cruel reality of the world these kids are entering is closing in on them. They are singing "Let the Sunshine In" because all they can see at that moment is darkness and doom.
Don’t get me wrong: there's plenty of singing and dancing and fooling around in the touring version. The cast is a conspicuously diverse group of young people who are clearly having fun, and most of them are good singers, some of them even great. The entire first act is spent establishing the innocence of these kids: they live in the moment, don't really understand the consequences of their actions, their personal relationship are a mess, and all they really know is that it’s fun to get high and do whatever they want. Jobs? Responsibilities? Organization? Housing? Showers? That stuff is for adults and losers who don't have trust funds.
Hair is an interesting show to see right now, what with "freedom" breaking out all over the Middle East. After all, these protests are being fueled largely by young people who no longer wish to live in the grip of oppressive tyranny. They're smart, they're organized, they know what they want—and they're willing to fight and die to get it. Wisconsin notwithstanding, it's all too tempting to think that the strife in the Middle East has nothing to do with us, that our children would never do anything as radical as take on the government. Aren't they all plenty happy texting their friends and playing video games all day long?
Perhaps. But you have to wonder what might happen in this country if our children looked up from their screens long enough to realize how thoroughly they are being screwed by the generations of adults who have gone before them. Our kids are being short-changed pretty much every way possible—economically, educationally, environmentally, politically, militarily, industrially, socially, globally—and if they ever wake up to this fact and decide to do something about it (via those little devices they're always looking at), the ensuing protests would, I'm guessing, be far less charming than the harmless self-involvement of the kids in Hair . This is a generation that has been told it can have anything it wants, and if we don't find a way to give it to them, there could be hell to pay.
In the meantime, enjoy this spirited production of Hair . It will remind you of a time when social protest was all the rage, and all kinds of good and sunny things still seemed possible.
Hair continues at The Orpheum Theatre through March 6, hennepintheatretrust.org