STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Hair at 30

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Hair at 30 It was 30 years ago this week that a legendary musical opened on Broadway: Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical that demanded the end of the war in Vietnam.
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It was 30 years ago this week that a legendary musical opened on Broadway: Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical that demanded the end of the war in Vietnam.

The Gerome Ragni-James Rado-Galt MacDermot smash was one of the final musicals of the 1967-68 season, and would run 1,750 performances. Lump the number of performances from the other 11 musicals of that season, and you come up with 1,527. Meaning that Hair ran nine months longer than all those musicals put together.

So what do we think of Hair three decades later? I decided to find out last month, and went to an off-Broadway revival at Third Eye Repertory.

I entered a "Grease"-like pre-show world. Kids who, of course, weren't alive in Hair's heyday were dressed as hippies, making "Peace" signs with their fingers, giving each audience member a flower, before asking "Spare some change?" They smoked joints made from what I assume was phony marijuana.

A female hippie, dressed to the 1969's, approached me in my jacket- and-tie. "What's you name?" she asked. "Peter."

"Oh, wow-w-w-w," she said (with the perfect intonation, by the way. I remember the way they sounded). "There's a Peter over there. Are you related?" she asked with a tinge of mockery.

I matched her mocking. "Yes. There is a brotherhood of man."

"I'm gonna to ask that other Peter for a date," she droned, settling my hash, and showing me the consequences of making war, not love.

Co-author Rado was there, too. He's bald, but has been for decades. I told him, "I remember when you played Georg in She Loves Me in 1965 at the Charles Playhouse in Boston."

His eyes narrowed to unamused slits. "Who're you?"

All right, maybe I wasn't welcome, but "Hair" sure was. Despite my firm roots in a late '50s-early '60s musical theater sensibility, I loved the score the moment I heard RCA's off-Broadway cast album in late 1967. Ditto the 1968 Broadway cast album. I even gave the French, German, Hebrew and Japanese cast albums a spin or two on my turntable, and they still live on my shelves.

Eventually, the show began in earnest, and showed its then-topical references. Ronald Reagan was cited a Governor of California, which was probably as far as Hair's authors would have guessed he'd go. The Waverly Theatre, mentioned in "Frank Mills," is now the Waverly I and II. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones still perform, but the Grateful Dead can't. Timothy Leary is dead, too, and it's been a long time since I've seen a Hare Krishna.

Co-author Ragni is long-gone as well. We met only once, when he was standing at the back of the Biltmore at the '77 revival. "That lyric, 'I'm hairy, noon and night," I asked him. "Was that a reference to the Ronald Ribman play, Harry, Noon, and Night?"

"Yes," he cooed. "I was cast in it, but left to do another show."

The Biltmore is where the hit original production played, too. Now the Biltmore has been closed for more than a decade. A gentleman named Steve Rourke is trying to change that. I'm rooting that he does. You should have seen the Biltmore during Hair, when it was the place in town to be. There was, incidentally, lots of faux ivy dripping from the marquee.

Well, at last Eartha Kitt, mentioned in the script, is still around, as the Wicked Witch of the West at Madison Square Garden. Mrs. Lyndon B. ("Lady Bird") Johnson thought she was a wicked witch, too, for the entertainer, during a White House tea, blatantly asked the First Lady why her husband wasn't really doing something to end the war. Mrs. Johnson felt that this was no way to treat a Lady Bird. For some reason, Kitt didn't work for a long time.

Hair's music, I'm glad to say, is still good. You can imagine how much I crowed back then to my non-musical-loving-barbarian friends that those five songs they liked so much came from a Broadway show.

Yes, five. "Easy to Be Hard," by Three Dog Night, was on the charts for 12 weeks, peaking at Number Four. "Good Morning, Starshine," by Oliver, rested comfortably for 11 weeks, reaching Number Three. That, though, was bested by the Cowsills' recording of the title song, on the list for 13 weeks, and making it to Number Two.

But the champ of them all was a mini-medley by the Fifth Dimension that paired "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In." It graced the charts for a full 16 weeks, six of them at Number One.

The original cast album itself was on the Top 100 for 151 weeks (that's right, virtually three years), 59 weeks on the Top 40, 28 on the Top 10, and a 13-week stint as The Number One Album in the Land.

So the rock musical was born, and Hair begat Salvation, which begat Touch, which begat Stomp (not the "Stomp" you know -- a rock musical "Stomp"). Of course, rock fans will tell you that we never heard real rock. Whatever the case, by the mid '70s, the rock musical was pretty much an afterthought.

Until two years ago, when another musical opened on Broadway that would, it was said, revolutionize the sound of Broadway: Rent. But its Top 100 showing was only a fraction of Hair's triumph, as was its best-known song, "Seasons of Love."

Neither Hair nor Rent forever changed the sound of the Broadway musical. No Broadway musical in the last two years has remotely sounded like Rent, but have you heard even one critic complain about that in any review?

Both shows feature college-age kids who treat their parents as if they're morons. Interesting, when you consider the Rent parents were once the age of the Hair kids. Jonathan Larson apparently believed they wound up no better or different.

Another similarity: Each show put some of its cast members under a cheesecloth -- but the kids from Rent emerged fully clothed. At the end of the first act, the Hair kids came out full-frontal naked. One of them, Natalie Mosco, is now playing Donald Saddler's dance partner in Paper Mill's excellent production of Follies.

Hair's introduction of nudity into mainstream theater was a genuine trend for a while. It got so that I expected to see a production of "The Pajama Game" where, at the end, Sid would come out wearing only pajama tops, while Babe would stand there clad only in the bottoms.

Nudity in the theater comes and goes, but never fully goes away. It probably never will.

The kids in the Third Eye production were more modest than their forebears. They stripped buck-naked, but in dim light and between sheets that were held up in strategic places. The original cast stood in dim light, too, but they faced you and didn't use sheets to fool your eye. Here, it was now-you-see-it, oh-you-don't situation.

So what? The cast, especially Nik Rocklin as the too-passive draftee Claude, was excellent. For years and years, these kids will feel twinges of pain from all the times they threw themselves on a hard floor in the spring of 1998.

Considering all the musical theater has endured in the last three decades, the show seemed much more coherent -- and conventional -- than it did in 1968. There's even a type of dream ballet, when Claude imagines his life in Vietnam. The dream, though, was induced from drug-taking. And when you think of it, "I Got Life" is pretty much the same as "I Got the Sun in the Mornin' and the Moon at Night."

So do you think we'll be watching a Rent revival 30 years from now? Considering how shows now seem to run now-and forever, the original production of Rent will probably still be happily ensconced at the Nederlander in 2026.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger.

You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com