The Village Voice’s November 2, 1967, review of “Hair,” a musical by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (music), directed by Gerald Freedman, presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater.
“Hair” is the first production of the New York Shakespeare Festival at its new Public Theatre on Lafayette Street. There the Festival will produce modern plays, augmenting its Shakespeare productions in Central Park and touring the schools—a fine idea, sort of a do-it-yourself Joseph-Papp Royal Shakespeare Festival. The beautiful old Astor Library building is being remodeled imaginatively to include two 299-seat theatres and a smaller children’s and experimental theatre. The one that’s open now, subtitled the Florence Sutro Anspacher Theatre, is a former main reading room, lofty three-sided open stage and sharply raked banks of seats—the whole occupying only part of the bottom level of the great room. The space has a striking impact, and the theatre feels good. How its odd stage space will work remains to be seen.
As for “Hair,” I loathed and despised it. Described as “an American tribal love-rock musical,” it turns out to be all phony.
My reaction may be inappropriate; I’ve lived in the Village too long, that’s all. This is show business, I guess, and I shouldn’t have expected truth, sincerity, devotion to reality, responsibility to the social environment, even plain honest art—but I did expect all that, and it’s possible. I was astonished, then baffled, then depressed to find, instead, the same debased standards and goals that have wrecked Broadway. “Hair” is bald opportunism. It exploits every obvious up-to-date issue—the draft, the war, even negritude—in a crass effort to be both timely and tidy. It has a Time-Life familiarity with its subject and says less about hippies than “West Side Story” did about Puerto Rican gangs. It pretends to be pro-hippie (the elders are caricatured and mocked, sometimes viciously) but pictures them only showing off or goofing off, discontented when they aren’t stoned (it smells like grass but they act like barbiturate freaks or misled actors), and given to spite and cynicism just like the play they’re in. The final point of view is that hippies are regular American kids at heart (under the dirt and hair) and will responsibly scrub, snip, and come through in a pinch, glad to be normal again. This may reassure some gullible parents, but it’s not true, it’s phony. The hippie scene isn’t a fashion fad (not as much as in England); if it’s just a phase they’re far too in to get out intact; they’ll never be the same. “Hair” is just the same. They aren’t and won’t be.
“Hair” might be forgiven its boring phoniness uptown; around the corner from St. Mark’s Place it is stupid and pointless. I found myself reacting like an outraged hippie, which I’m not; still, it purports to show concerns, attitudes, and life styles I’m involved in, & lies grate. The vulgarity is appalling—Vietnam and the draft, for instance, used as plot devices as if no reality lurked in the words; and the Negro cast members subjected to embarrassing vive-la-difference camaraderie.
Aside from all this—as a $2.50 musical uptown, say—“Hair” still isn’t much good. It has an electric rock score by Galt MacDermot, and while it isn’t in a class with good new pop music, the sound is a relief from the exhausted show-tune style, and there are songs that work well in the show. But the structure is weak, the plot ridiculous, the point of view vague and finky, the writing mediocre: the dialogue features showy hipsterisms of 1965 at the latest, including a couple of antique button jokes, and the lyrics tend to list synonyms. Gerald Freedman’s staging goes for the hard sell; I was luckily not near an aisle. The stage looked tough to handle, and the play suffered constantly from lack of locale. Ming Cho Lee’s decor would look good in a record shop; Martin Aronstein’s lighting is timid and obvious (and I think he maimed a reverse-action repeating pantomime section, extraneously brilliant, by lighting it with a movie rather than a lobster-scope or strobe); Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes look authentic. In fact, the whole thing manages to look quite professional, which shows how words decay.
Some of the cast are engaging, including Sally Eaton and Shelley Plimpton; some are nowhere, including Walker Daniels in the crucial role of Claude; most are miscast and trying to do the wrong thing. Maybe they think hippies are just pretending to be hippies by acting like hippies, in which event the whole thing can be called a put-on of a put-on. If you’re hippie or plain old hip, stay clear. “Hair,” like the hero’s beloved blond tresses, is a gauche wig.
Let it be forgotten. Let the Public Theatre begin again. The next production is to be “Hamlet.”