Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical that opened on Broadway last April and went on to become the season's biggest hit, came as a surprise to everyone. No one expected the rebellious stuff of Off-Broadway theatre to hit Broadway quite yet. And when it did in the form of Hair, no one expected it to pack the audiences in — a thousand a night — night after night after night. For Hair is vehemently antiwar, anti big business and, by extension, anti the whole, older, theatregoing generation. Furthermore, its mode of expression is so indigenously vulgar (in the precise, non-moralistic connotation of the word) that to cut the four-letter words from the script would be to collapse the entire production.
While none of this is considered risky Off-Broadway, where small, "liberated" audiences are all that's needed to keep a production afloat, who would ever have thought you could shoot a quiver of acid-tipped arrows at the Broadway theatregoer — and expect him to pay as much as twelve dollars a head for the privilege?
How does Hair get away with it? What special quality prevents it from striking theatregoers as insidiously un-American, and thereby disaffecting them?
At least part of the answer to this question, I think, lies in the simple fact that Hair is not just a "message musical." It entertains — so much so that even while those bare-chested bodies are creeping down on you from all sides, writhing down the center aisle, wriggling over your lap and up onto the stage (which is the way Hair begins); even as you're thinking, "My God! They're taking over!" a larger part of you is wishing you were flying forty feet through the air on a rope, flowers stuck behind your ear, like that guy with the hairy armpits. It must also be said that a good deal of what Hair puts down can be comfortably laughed at by the average theatregoer — strawmen like Nixon, Wallace, Margaret Meade, The Village Voice. It is no longer shocking to take potshots at any of these. It is shocking to feel, as we are made to feel, the intensity of those kids' disgust, their pain over the violence in our society, their fear of war (no ideological contempt but pure, simple fear for their own lives), their conviction that there is another way.
Largely, these feelings come through in the songs, whose lyrics often transcend the easy put-down and speak from the soul. The score is paced so that when those occasional lines jump out at us their effect is almost subliminal. During the title number, the audience is having a high time laughing at Claude's jubilant obsession with the beauty of his own hair — My hair like Jesus wore it, Hallelujah I adore it; when he sings, Hallelujah, Mary loved her son. Why . . . don't . . . my . . . mother . . . love me? Funny, yes, the unloved hairy son, and underneath the laughter, pain.
It's a subtle thing, what Hair manages to bring off — subtle enough to make you wonder just who is responsible. Was there one informing spirit behind it all or was Hair the result of a happy confluence of circumstances? To find the answer I went first to Michael Butler, the play's producer.
Butler is a money man's money man, fourth generation millionaire, virgin on Broadway, in sympathy with the causes of hippiedom and quoted as saying that most of his friends are too. (Weekend hippies, are they, with sideburn pasties from the Wig City Hippie Kit?)
The five days each week when he is in New York (he commutes from Chicago), Butler headquarters in an office that floats on a sea of wall-to-wall carpeting ending in a dimly lit dais. On the dais is a massive desk, and it was behind that desk that I found the mustachioed great god of Hair, dressed in gold gabardine trousers, a mauve shirt and flowing scarf. The Hair LP was blasting away and kids on Butler's staff, dressed in micro skirts and bell-bottoms, drifted silently up to his desk with messages and departed. After a moment Butler looked up and unsmilingly acknowledged my presence. (He is not unkind, but cautious — perhaps least anyone should think him a forty-year-old rich kid kook playing tiddlywinks on the Broadway market.) I asked him how he'd come to believe that a musical as anti-Establishment as Hair could make it on Broadway.
Well, he said slowly, he had felt the time was right. After all, hadn't McCluhanism hit just about everything but Broadway? He took Hair as close to Broadway as the large uptown discothéque Cheetah (where it opened with no advance sales whatsoever), watched it do increasingly well for six weeks, and finally his father said to him, "If you like that play so much, who not take it to Broadway?" At about that time Joseph Papp's option on the property lapsed (Hair was first produced by Papp at his downtown Public Theater) and Michael Butler grabbed it, took on Bertrand Castelli as executive producer and as its director, Tom O'Horgan, from the experimental Off-Broadway theatre club, La Mama. The book was tightened and at the same time made much franker. It was perhaps a speculator's temperament that made Butler feel that if Hair was going to work on Broadway, all stops had to be pulled. The play was made more trenchantly topical on race, politics and war, and the four-letter words rang out louder and clearer. The tourist lady, who, in the original production, could have been anyone's Auntie Grace, became a female impersonator in the Broadway version. (Butler felt that if the audience were both verbally and visually pummeled the shock value of the language and the revolutionism would be reduced — a scheme that's worked, if ticket sales are any measure of public acceptance.) A nude scene was inserted at the end of Act One that caused lots of talk — the kind that sells tickets. It also makes one of the play's most forceful moral statements.
Before Hair opened at the Biltmore, all but four roles were recast. Casting was a difficult task in view on the supra-professional qualities being sought after. The producer and director looked for a measure of natural alliance with the play's sentiments, as well as a brand of personal freedom not necessarily associated with being an actor. The cast which was finally assembled ranged in professionalism from Lamont Washington, who had honed his talents on TV and understudied Sammy Davis in Golden Boy, to Shelley Plimpton, whom the producers brag about discovering behind a cash register.
About all Butler takes credit for in the overhaul Hair got before it moved into the Biltmore is "instilling some discipline" in the production, but Butler the businessman could have attempted to impose total discipline. Instead, he allowed Hair to become a sort of ensemble or group effort that dismissed the usual hierarchy of professional status (from producer, to playwright, and on down to the least significant chorus boy) and ideas poured in from everyone. No one was insignificant. The cast, for example, was responsible for a good many of the bits and lines in the new script. "When something was so bad it was embarrassing," one boy told me, "you'd just think of something to say instead. Then if they liked it, which they often did, they'd say, Let's keep it!' "
The challenge of harnessing the power of a conglomerate of individuals, channeling it into the kind of ordered anarchy that occurs onstage and which is perhaps the play's most distinguished quality, fell to director Tom O'Horgan. It was not a problem with which he was unfamiliar, having worked out rigorously, as he had, in the "new theater" experiments at the Café La Mama workshop. The possibilities inherent in getting a group of highly individualistic people to work ensemble to produce something far greater than they could in rigid isolation from one another (i.e., the star system) are being discovered in many disciplines — in business as well as in the arts — and it was perhaps inevitable that O'Horgan's work in the direction should be brought to Broadway.
No one in the cast, as it happened, was as emotionally liberated as a play about hippie life called for. To put them in touch with one another and with the play itself, O'Horgan used a series of techniques, devices, if one will, culled from projects as far-flung as Esalen Institute for Human Potential in San Francisco and the Polish Lab Theatre. In order to establish a very basic "gut level" trust, Tom O'Horgan had each actor stand arms down and eyes closed, in the center of a circle of the others, and allow his body to fall, be caught, and then be passed around. The kids were also encouraged to take turns touching one another's bodies all over, to break down bodily inhibitions and to help them "get inside of" or experience one another as persons. Exercises in extreme slow motion promoted a kind of self-hypnotism. "We'd do something like put on a shoe very slowly," O'Horgan said. "What happens is that your sense of gravity gets shifted around and you become aware of things you hadn't been aware of before."
It happens that the whole opening of Hair, the slowly stretching and writhing bodies taking an almost unendurable length of time to reach the stage from the back of the theatre, was blocked out as an extension of the slow-motion exercise. Besides being a highly dramatic method of getting the audience involved, it is also designed to get the cast involved, or rather re-involved, each night. "You have to understand," O'Horgan explained, "how difficult it is after a normal day's occupations to make a transition and get back in touch with the essence of the play."
A close-up of Hair
In order to get further into the play myself, I spent an evening watching it from the wings.
To try to penetrate to the heart of an illusion can only be a disappointment, like sneaking a look up the magician's sleeve. Hair is one thing seen from fourth row center. But backstage the totality breaks apart into so many bits and pieces — props, gimmicks and one-liners — incense burners, wilted clumps of flowers thrown hastily onto the prop shelf, wigs, gimmick costumes like the one stretch gown worn by the three pseudo-Supremes, a stage manager hushing a kid when he curses resoundingly, using the same sibilant monosyllable that's flung from the stage in joyous defiance (and that's OK, but the same language offstage isn't). The nude scene that seems like the right, the natural protest of a bunch of kids commanded to offer up their innocent bodies to shrapnel for a cause they don't believe in . . . until you hear those same kids complaining later that they don't get paid as much as the strippers do, that there's hazard pay for anyone who carries fire onstage but nothing extra for those who take off their clothes. Is it all professionalism and sham, this production that seemed to spit so brightly in the eye of the Establishment?
But, of course, it's a sham. That's what theatre is all about. It simulates.
My disappointment upon observing the inner mechanisms of Hair only testifies to its effectiveness as theatre. I wanted to believe it was a Happening, a Happening that happened every night.
This article originally appeared in the September 1968 issue of Playbill.