‘Hair’ on tour: a treasure trove of music and an amped-up cast

The national touring company for 'Hair' Credit: Joan Marcus

Fueled as much by meth as marijuana, the touring production of the ’60s rock musical Hair blew into Seattle on Sunday, settling into a one-week run at The Paramount Theatre. It’s a charged-up, raucous, and mostly groovy trip.

The original Hair, subtitled The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was first produced in a six-week run in 1967 at the then-newly opened New York Public Theater, followed by a short run of performances at Cheetah, a New York night club. Finally, in 1968, it settled in for a long and hugely successful four-year run at the Biltmore Theatre, after much tweaking, new production team members, and an infusion of cash from backer Michael Butler, a wealthy anti-Vietnam War activist.

The current production at The Paramount had a successful run on Broadway before hitting the road in October. It emerged from a 40th-anniversary version presented by the New York Public Theater outdoors at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in 2008, greeted with such success that they decided to move it into a Broadway house where it won last year’s Tony for best revival of a musical.

The version seen at the Paramount is evidence both of the current state of Broadway musicals, touring or not, and the revolutionary nature of Hair, which addressed the attitudes of the fabled “flower power” youth culture that was emerging at the time of its creation.

Its free-form structure, eclectic musical score, colorful costumes and equally colorful language, ebullient choreography, and themes of free-love, drug use, racial equity, gender-bending, anti-war stances, eco-consciousness, and general revolt against social restrictions were all rolled into one joyful pop celebration that broke new ground in the American theater — even if experimentalists at the fringe had been already doing this for years. Rebellion, cursing, nudity, and uptight America on trial had now gone mainstream, like the parallel movement in the film world.

Hair has much going for it, not least of all the nostalgia trip for a public constituency of a certain age (count me in), and a young generation anxious to see what all the hoopla is about, perhaps desirous of finding a bit of themselves in the show’s portraits.

The work’s enduring allure owes a great deal to its musical score of 40 numbers (an unusually large amount for this genre), some forgettable, many memorable, and several — like “Aquarius” and “Easy to be Hard” — now ensconced in the pantheon of American popular music. The lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado are especially fine, a poetic revelation of all that was concerning in the day.

Unfortunately, much of this treasure trove was overwhelmed by the amped-up sound system in The Paramount, which muddied the singers’ delivery and made supertitles something to be considered for the remainder of the show’s run.

Equally amped up was the cast of 30 as the tribe of young people who gathered daily on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Racially mixed and all visually appealing they offer boundless energy on-stage as well as off, as the players made frequent forays into the main floor of seating, standing on chairs, dancing with patrons, greeting the paying customers and otherwise delighting most everyone in the audience except perhaps the shy or curmudgeonly.

Engaging as they were, one got the feeling that everyone was a little too manic, and instead of acting we got declaiming, as if director Diane Paulus believed that if the characters didn’t speak clearly and boldly and incessantly jump around a lot, we might not get it.

There is not much of a storyline in Hair, an intentional and effective choice in structure and form that was to influence many later shows, with the one real narrative stream being whether Claude, ably played by Paris Remillard, will go off to fight in Vietnam, a weighty decision faced by all young men who were draft-eligible at the time. The other male characters in Hair have protested and resisted the draft, and Claude’s agonizing choice is one many young people and their families in the audiences of the late ’60s and early ’70s could surely identify with. 

Lacking consistent story line, the show has a revue quality to it, revealing the nature of hippie life with many of the segments quite clever and arch. My favorites were a few riotous scenes with uptight parents and older people (one of whom delivers a special surprise to the audience), an acid trip gone bad with wily riffs on alternate versions of American history, and several songs touching on racism and interracial love.

One subject of the Age of Aquarius of the ’60s that seemed still so 1950s was the secondary nature of the roles given to the women of Hair. True, they have some great songs to sing, but the action is really with the bromance between Claude and his pal Berger, the preening free spirit played by Steel Burkhardt.

Much of what was shocking or unusual in 1967 seems somewhat tame now, so one wonders why this version of Hair seemed to soft-peddle the famous nude scene, a shocker in the day. It was always a short sequence, but at The Paramount the beautiful young bodies were so suffused in discreet lighting that one wondered whose modesty was being protected — the actors’, the audience’s, or those who might protest as the show traveled across America.

A good deal is being made of this Hair’s relevance for today’s audiences, as we fight another war overseas, the environment is being degraded, the economy is shaky, racism has come again to the fore, drugs of all kinds are still a problem, and many of us are deeply distrustful of the government that we have.

There are certainly connections to be made about what has and has not changed in America’s life, but that was then and this is now and it would be a mistake to equate the two times, just as it would be a mistake to see Hair as a letter-perfect representation of the counterculture of the 1960s. It was fun to read online the contemporary views of Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Helix, when “Hair” first played here in a 1969 production. They considered the show a sell-out of their values.

This Hair will provide a good time for most viewers, and offers an opportunity to see a piece of musical theater that crossed into new theatrical territory. It had great resonance at the time with many of America’s youth (and still might for today’s). Perhaps it also at the time made some parents more sympathetic to what was up in their children’s lives.

One last note: Given the cultural relevance of Hair it would have been good if the printed program had given some historical context. As it was, a brief message from the president of sponsoring Key Bank was the only bit that did so.

If you go: The touring production of Hair runs through Dec. 4 at The Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle. Tickets start at $25 and can purchased at the box office, online or at 1-877-784-4849.

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