Firecracker took me to see a bunch of naked dirty hippies on Broadway the other night. The revival of 1967’s controversial show Hair is especially prescient now that we’ve finally gotten out of the ’60s- President Obama was born in 1961 and therefore too young to be a baby boomer, and politics is all the better for it. 1968 should now be officially over, 40 years hence.
It’s still an excellent musical, full of energy, even if it’s no longer shocking. But it’s a reminder that 40 years ago, you could get beat up over your hairstyle. The country was gripped by fear whipped up by the military-industrial complex, which after World War 2 was ravenously hungry for the war economy that funnels most of our enormous GNP into their coffers. So, Korea. Vietnam. The Cold War. The “peace dividend,” which never materialized because a tiny country named Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. The Global War on Terror, the war that must never speak its name, as we send 30,000 soldiers to the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, while we shake hands with Saudis, who make the Taliban look a little moderate.
What struck me were the protest songs, when they spoke of tear gas, dogs, and water cannons; at least that’s changed. Now we use sonic weapons, like in Pittsburgh during the G20 summit. The right to assemble for a petition of grievances may be explicitly in our Constitution, in a country born of revolt, but there is something implanted in our nature since the ’30s that says, if you speak up, you’re breaking the law and deserve whatever you get. As if pointing out the mote in your brother’s eye means you should be clubbed with the beam in your own. Miraculously, those protesting the G20- where the decisions affecting the world are made- are considered criminal, but the Tea Party tea-baggers preaching violent revolution because a Democratic President- who’s not even particularly liberal when compared to Clinton, or hell, Richard Nixon- is in power, are coddled by the powers that be. Funny how that works. People show up with guns when the President speaks, they’re okay. Some organic food proponent with a sign, targeted for snatch & grab arrest. Follow the money.
But I digress. The musical is only dated by the bell bottoms and the free love, but it hearkens back to a New York where the cool parts of town had rebels in them, not trust fund kids. We got a good peek at this briefly in Julie Taymor’s ambitious Beatles musical Across the Universe, but it seems that we want to forget how free we used to be; that we once mocked the drive to provide, provide, and now the closest Hollywood will get to it are tepid dramas like Revolutionary Road, where the shackles of pursuing wealth are too hard to shake.
The closest Hair gets to what it must have felt like in ’68 is the audience participation, which begins with Berger, the Abbie Hoffman-esque jester-satyr, thrusting his loin-clothed loins at an (un)lucky first row audience member, stroking their hair, and practically tea-bagging them in the John Waters’ Pecker fashion (hitting them on the forehead with his sack, if you haven’t seen that movie). This continues with other cast members kissing folks in the aisles, handing out flowers, and pretending to lock all the exits while they fire up fake joints. What I found most amusing was how the audience suddenly started coughing as the fake cigs- it’s illegal to smoke a cigarette on stage in New York- smoked up the stage. I didn’t smell smoke, but the most protest you’ll get out of most of us is an instinctive clearing of the throat when someone dares to even faux-smoke these days. You breathe worse in when you walk across city traffic for 5 minutes, idiot.
Admittedly, the best parts of the musical for me involved the more famous song numbers- Aquarius, good morning Starshine, and Let the Sun Shine. They did include the infamous nude scene after they burn their draft cards, but it felt shoehorned- as if it were much longer originally, like a bacchanalian rite of dancing around the steel drum bonfire- and our modern Puritan sensibilities would be shocked by more than a few seconds of dimly lit unshorn pubes bushing out at us from hippie crotches. But the best part was that the show never gave a condescending wink to the material or the time, as if to whisper to us “remember when we were flower children? Aren’t you glad the Lower East Side is all gentrified now?” And it didn’t shy from the dated songs like “I’m a Colored Spade,” probably because now, he is the President of the United States … of Love.
Hair on Netflix