Although rock musical Hair’s score has played daily in my head for the last twenty years, I’d never seen the show. I’m only slightly more unnerved by the fact that I’m old enough to make that statement than that as a thirteen-year-old I listened to songs like “Sodomy” and “Hashish.” Not to mention “Colored Spade,” which sung by an African American character, riffs on the numerous slang terms for black people. I used to break into that one in public. Sorry, mom.
While I’d grown up enjoying this exuberant ode to 1960’s counterculture, I’d never considered the play in any sense sophisticated. Impassioned, sure. Catchy, absolutely. But it wasn’t until last night when I caught the touring production at the Oriental Theatre that I understood Hair’s true artistry.
With book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, the show has undergone innumerable tweaks and alterations since its original off-Broadway debut in 1967. Perhaps its most notable change: before opening on Broadway, central character Claud (played in the current production by Paris Remillard) was transformed from a space alien to a Polish kid from New York. Hard to take a play with such an offbeat foundation seriously.
In addition, the show’s copious musical vignettes are strung together on an outwardly fragile plot strand. To whit, a tribe of hippies takes turns soliloquizing on topics from drugs, to the Vietnam War to interracial sex to the power of love.
Slowly however, the audience begins to discern one hippie from another. Personalities emerge: Berger (Steel Burkhardt) is a show-off, more concerned with fun than feelings, Sheila (Caren Lyn Tackett), an NYU student, is a committed protester, Woof (Matt DeAngelis) isn’t gay, exactly, but he’d sleep with Mick Jagger, and Claud can’t quite bring himself to burn his draft card, not even under pressure from the tribe.
However, over the course of the two-hour show, summer turns to autumn and autumn is slayed by winter as what begins as a series of sketches grows into something greater than the sum of its parts. This change of seasons, representative of the 60’s initial hope and final drug/war/adulthood-fueled destruction also intentionally reflects Claud’s journey from effervescent flower child to reluctant soldier. Throw in a bundle of earnest yet surprisingly affecting Hamlet comparisons, powerful melodies, and unexpectedly poetic lyrics, and Hair reveals itself as more than a period piece, rather an essential slice of American culture, as bold and indispensable as when it was written.
To purchase tickets for Hair visit Broadway in Chicago's website. Just don't quote the soundtrack in public.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. Follow Our Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez