I never saw the original Broadway production of Hair in 1967, but like most college students I wore out the album. With the songs still seared into my memory, I had to refrain from joining in with the cast when attending the revival at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. We were sitting in the first row, which brought us up close to the action. At one point, Will Swenson (center, above), who plays the tribe’s leader, Berger, jumped off the stage, landed in front of me, and ran his fingers through my hair. Even in the balcony, it was hard not to interact with the cast since the actors seemed to regard the entire auditorium as an extension of the stage. The energy and enthusiasm was infectious.
Glancing around at the talented performers (besides Swenson, standouts are Sasha Allen who sings “Aquarius,” Cassie Levy, whose Sheila wants to change the world but still, “needs a friend,” and Gavin Creel, as Claude, whose impending Army induction fuels the action), I couldn’t help but wonder how this cast’s connection to the material differed from what the original cast must have felt. Would the 1967 cast have exhibited more apprehension, defiance, even anger? The young people in this revival weren’t alive during the 1960s, and so much about our country has changed since then. It’s one thing to know that we used to have a mandatory draft, another to have seen relatives and classmates face that life or death decision. (Do we still even have draft cards?)
Of course each generation has its challenges. Young people today, like my generation in the 1960s, worry about world peace, nuclear proliferation, race relations (despite an African-American President), abortion, health care, and the economy. When we graduated, we had a hard time finding jobs and now watch our children struggle to get started. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Hair is more than a period piece or an anthem for a specific generation. No matter the issues, there are always choices to be made and doing the right thing is not always so simple. Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, the architect of our nation’s Vietnam policy, spent the remainder of his life until his death on July 6 apologizing for his mistake. Watching Hair now with the benefit of that hindsight, who was right: Berger vowing to “stay high forever,” or Claude, who can’t bring himself to burn his draft card and ends up going to Vietnam? Those wounds, for many of us, still fester.
And yet, despite the social chaos created by the Vietnam War, the 1960s were, in so many ways, exciting, creative, and unique. And all of these qualities are exemplified in Hair. The costumes may cause many of us to go rummaging in our closets for that poncho or purse we forgot about. We may be more understanding of our children when they do outrageous acts. (That parenting moment will probably happen at the end of the first act when the entire cast bares all. Woodstock, anyone?) Even a handful among us may decide to recapture some of our youth with longer hair (a small handful).
At the end of the performance, the audience was invited to come onstage and dance with the cast to the tune, “Let the Sun Shine.” As the entire stage pulsated, I watched one fifty-something man stop one of the cast members and say, “Thank you!” She stopped and looked at him. “No, thank you,” she replied, embracing him in a hug. It may no longer be the Age of Aquarius, but that feeling transcends time and is one for all ages.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street