'Hair' At 50: Going Gray, But Its Youthful Optimism Remains Bouncy And Full-Bodied

May 1, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 11:19 am

Fifty years ago this past weekend, Broadway "let the sun shine in."

The musical Hair was controversial in 1968, with its rock music, hippies, nude scene, multiracial cast and anti-war irreverence. It billed itself as "the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical."

Audiences ... didn't quite know what to make of that. (They figured it out eventually.)

To appreciate how unexpected Hair was in 1968, consider what else was playing on Broadway the week it opened:

Hello, Dolly!

Man of La Mancha

Funny Girl

Fiddler on the Roof

One of Fiddler's signature numbers, of course, is an anthem about the importance of "Tradition." And Broadway was a place of tradition — of stars, clearly enunciated lyrics, tap-dancing chorus kids and soaring ballads.

The counterculture wasn't part of that tradition. Especially when it sounded like Jimi Hendrix's fuzzy guitar licks.

Broadway's idea of rock music had been the Elvis-like character in Bye Bye Birdie. Galt MacDermot's music for Hair was closer to the real thing. And the flower-power lyrics of James Rado and Jerome Ragni — like those from the second act's "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" — didn't sound like show-tunes either:

Ripped open by metal explosion

Caught in barbed wire

Fireball

Bullet shock

... Bullets? Barbed wire? A look through the program was no more reassuring to the gray-hairs in the audience. The third song, "Hashish," was basically a list of drugs:

Hashish

Cocaine

Marijuana

Opium

LSD

DMT

STP, BLT

A&P, IRT

APC, Alcohol

Cigarettes, shoe polish, cough syrup, peyote

Equinol, dexamil, camposine, chemadrine

Thorazine, trilophon, dexadrine, benzedrine, methedrine

S-E-X and Y-O-U, Wow!

... While the fourth song, "Sodomy," listed sexual acts:

Sodomy

Fellatio

Cunnilingus

Pederasty

Father, why do these words sound so nasty?

Masturbation

Can be fun

Join the holy orgy

Kama Sutra

Everyone!

That's drugs and sex right at the top of Act 1. And plot? Well, there wasn't one, really. Something about a guy who was worried about getting drafted. Except his storyline kept disappearing so that, say, a then-unknown Diane Keaton could sing about how much she liked dating black men:

Because I really crave for

My chocolate-flavored treats

Black boys are nutritious

This was, remember, barely three weeks after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Riots had rocked major cities including New York. But the show had little patience with the prejudices it was mocking.

Hair was the generation gap made flesh — and for a few seconds at the end of the first act, made flesh with flesh: a nude scene in half-light the show added as it leapt from off-Broadway to a bigger theater on Broadway.

The reviews were mixed, but young people were showing up. The traditional theater audience came along for the ride, because despite all the show's button-pushing and profanity, Hair was centrally, essentially, innocent.

Kids out front, watching kids onstage who saw the world as improvable, who were hopeful about the future:

Good morning, starshine

The earth says hello

You twinkle above us

We twinkle below

Yes, those kids were disheveled — and by "those kids," I sort of mean me, since I was wearing my own hair down to the middle of my back. My mom thought I looked like a poodle ... and in pictures, I kinda do. A proud poodle, because Hair helped make hippies mainstream and relatable. [Editor's note: Guys, you really want to click this link to see a photo of circa 1968 Bob. With poodle hair. And hippie sideburns. And a belt buckle the size of dinner plate. It's really ... something.]

On TV, student protesters may have seemed threatening to some people — onstage, they were sort of cuddly.

This thoroughly American "Tribal Love-Rock Musical" soon became a hit all over the world: Brazil, Italy, Japan ... And it made rock music something that theater was forced to reckon with. In shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Dreamgirls and Rock of Ages, the rock musical became a Broadway genre. Hair got there first.

These days, Hair is performed in high schools, by kids who can ask their grandparents about the draft and the war in Vietnam. Many of those kids — whatever the length of their hair — have made news recently, carrying protest signs at the "March for Our Lives," reminding those of us who've gotten disillusioned over the years of the fierce optimism youth nearly always has about the future.

Their future.

Hair was the dawning of the "Age of Aquarius," but a half-century later, that age is still with us.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, Broadway let the sunshine in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in.

MARTIN: The musical "Hair" was controversial in 1968 with its rock music, hippies, nude scene, integrated cast and antiwar irreverence. It billed itself as "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical." Audiences didn't quite know what to make of that at first, but NPR's Bob Mondello says they figured it out.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: To appreciate how unexpected "Hair" was in 1968, listen for a second to what else was playing on Broadway that week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

CAROL CHANNING: (As Dolly Gallagher Levi, singing) Hello, Harry…

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MAN OF LA MANCHA")

RICHARD KILEY: (As Don Quixote, singing) To dream the impossible dream…

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUNNY GIRL")

BARBRA STREISAND: (As Fanny Brice, singing) People who need people…

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Tradition, tradition.

MONDELLO: Broadway was a place of tradition, of stars, clearly enunciated lyrics, tap-dancing chorus kids and soaring ballads. The counterculture wasn't part of that tradition, especially when it sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC GUITAR)

MONDELLO: Broadway's idea of rock music had been the Elvis-like character in "Bye Bye Birdie." Galt MacDermot's music was closer to the real thing, and the flower-power lyrics didn't sound like show tunes either.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Ripped open by metal explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Caught in barbed wire, fireball.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Bullet shock.

MONDELLO: Bullets, barbed wire - and a look through the program was no more reassuring to the gray hairs in the audience. The third song, "Hashish," was basically a list of drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Opium, LSD.

MONDELLO: The fourth song, "Sodomy," listed sexual acts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Why do these words sound so nasty?

MONDELLO: That's drugs and sex right at the top of act I and plots - well, there wasn't one really, something about a guy who was worried about getting drafted, except his storyline kept disappearing so that, say, a then-unknown Diane Keaton could sing about how much she liked dating black men.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

DIANE KEATON: (As character, singing) I really craved for my chocolate-flavored treats.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Oh, black boys are nutritious.

MONDELLO: This was, remember, barely three weeks after the death of Martin Luther King. Riots had rocked major cities, including New York, but the show had little patience with the prejudices it was mocking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) This is 1968, dearies, not 1948.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) 1968.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) What the hell you got 1968...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) That makes you so damn superior.

MONDELLO: "Hair" was the generation gap made flesh and for a few seconds at the end of the first act made flesh with flesh - a nude scene in half-light the show added as it leapt from off Broadway to a bigger theater on Broadway. The reviews were mixed, but young people were showing up. The traditional theater audience came along for the ride because despite all the show's button-pushing and profanity, "Hair" was centrally essentially innocent. Kids out front watching kids on stage who saw the world as improvable...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As Sheila, singing) Good morning, starshine.

MONDELLO: ...Who were hopeful about the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As Sheila, singing) The Earth says hello. You twinkle above us. We twinkle below.

MONDELLO: Yes, those kids were disheveled, and by those kids, I sort of mean me since I wore my own hair then down to the middle of my back. My mom thought I looked like a poodle. And in pictures, I kind of do - a proud poodle because "Hair" helped make hippies mainstream and relatable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character, singing) When the moon is in the seventh house.

MONDELLO: On TV, student protesters may have seemed threatening to some people. On stage, they were sort of cuddly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character, singing) Then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

MONDELLO: "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" soon became a hit all over the world, in Brazil...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character, singing in Portuguese).

MONDELLO: In Italy...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character, singing in Italian).

MONDELLO: In Japan...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character, singing in Japanese).

MONDELLO: And it made rock music something that theater had finally figured out how to work with in shows like "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Grease," "Dreamgirls," "Rock Of Ages." The rock musical became a genre on Broadway. "Hair" got there first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As character, singing) Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees, give a home to the fleas in my hair.

MONDELLO: These days, "Hair" is performed in high schools by kids who can ask their grandparents about the draft and the war in Vietnam, kids who have recently - whatever the length of their hair - been back in the news, carrying protest signs at the March For Our Lives, reminding those of us who have gotten disillusioned through the years of the fierce optimism youth nearly always has about the future - their future. "Hair" was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but a half-century later, that age is still with us. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Mystic crystal revelation and the mind's true liberation... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.