Sunshine Superman

Photo: Michal Daniel

Try any show against it: Hair is the weirdest musical ever staged. There’s sort of a plot, though not really. It treats audiences to a Hamlet soliloquy set to folk music, just before the song that runs “Gliddy glup gloopy/Nieby nabby noopy/La la la lo lo.” Deadly serious activities like draft-card burning alternate with Dionysian vistas (naked boys and girls singing) and lyrics that would be at home on Sesame Street (“I got my eyes/I got my nose/I got my mouth/I got my teeth,” goes one nursery-ready stanza). The show’s hymns to love will always hold up; the shout-outs to heroin aren’t quite doing the same.

But then what do you expect from a musical born when this one was? When Hair premiered in October 1967—inaugurating Joe Papp’s new Public Theater on Lafayette Street—the Summer of Love was still compromising young America’s drug tests. Before the show could reopen on Broadway the following spring, Martin Luther King was in the ground; six weeks after opening night, so was Bobby Kennedy.

In deciding to revive a show that so explicitly reflects those darkening days, the Public has given itself a stiff challenge. Anyone staging Hair needs to get the lighthearted stuff in Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s script across without letting the evening feel like a Gap ad—and with a cast as young and attractive and frequently photographed as this one, that danger is omnipresent. You also have to resist the temptation to bang the audience over the head with the show’s relevance to the Age of Cheney: “Let the Sunshine In,” which sounds like a rock anthem but is actually a musical distress signal, a tortured cry for help, could have been written with Mr. Undisclosed Location in mind. More broadly, director Diane Paulus must have wondered if the whole thing could end up looking ridiculous, an artifact from a time when people, like, cared about stuff.

When you’re sitting there in the Delacorte, it’s hard to miss some fits and starts and stumbles. Poor Will Swenson, the handsome, talented actor playing Berger, the show’s emcee, has to sell a fringed loincloth costume, very East Village Navajo. Simulated sex might have looked risqué in 1967; now it’s just faintly embarrassing to watch everybody fake-humping all over the Astroturf stage. The show’s hero, the doomed, soon-to-be-Vietnam-fodder Claude, goes on a long, long acid trip that consumes much of Act Two and most of your patience (self-absorption being another sixties legacy encoded in this show).

Looking back on them now, though, the evening’s problems don’t seem like such a big deal. The reasons all derive from a simple general truth: Hair isn’t a musical that’s meant to be seen and heard like other musicals; it’s meant to be experienced. The Delacorte turns out to be perfectly suited to the energy of this latter-day Happening, and energy turns out to be the show’s great saving grace. “I got life!” sings Claude as, behind him, the other actors jump up and down with their arms in the air and shout “Life!” half a dozen times. Who could resist this?

It may be that the exuberant youngsters trudge offstage and puff their cigarettes and bitch about the size of their dressing rooms, but I doubt it: They radiate an infectious delight at being up there. It helps that the enthusiasm is backed up by the super-charisma of Jonathan Groff, who plays Claude; the potent, lively voice of Patina Renea Miller, whose raucous lead vocal for “White Boys” ought to put her on the road to stardom; and the glow that emanates from Allison Case, whose fair skin, red, red hair, and sunny personality—imagine Laura Linney’s yearbook picture bursting into song—embody the spirit of the flower child in even purer form than the show.

On the night that I partook of The Hair Experience, the show benefited from another delightful surprise. No sooner had Kacie Sheik started the song “Air” by turning to the heavens and singing “Welcome sulfur dioxide,” than the heavens responded with a pelting rainstorm. Actors ran for cover; audience members ran for cover. When the storm passed, the band noodled away (complete with a ferocious rhythm section that did wonderful things to Galt MacDermot’s music all night) as the crew frantically tried to reset the stage. But you can only blot dry so much Astroturf. And so the Delacorte, as it has done so many times in the past, helped its audience forge an iron bond with the actors. We knew that their jeans were just as wet as ours.

What I’ll not soon forget about the evening—and what is, in the end, the ultimate tribute to the way the Public handled this beautiful, inane show—is how completely it let Hair do what only Hair can do. At the curtain call, the audience jumped onstage and danced with the cast. I don’t mean a few brave souls—I mean people streamed up the aisles until they filled the vast Delacorte stage and still kept coming.

Can you spot the captivating twist here? A musical written to capture the joy, heart, and esprit de corps of a community 41 years ago became, however briefly, an engine for creating the same sort of community right now. As the band tore into the fourth or fifth sing-along chorus of “Let the Sunshine In,” you knew everybody else was feeling it with you, some kind of crazy magic in the air.

Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado.
The Delacorte Theatre. Through August 31.


Sunshine Superman