The collegiate cast of Hair—and most of the audience on opening night last week—could be forgiven for thinking the recurring song “Manchester” was an homage to the birthplace of the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. For though the musical is 40 years old, under Thadd McQuade’s direction it seems to be located nowhere specific, neither in terms of time nor space, and insofar as there are no visual cues to suggest that the score and plot relate to East Village hippies who resist the Vietnam War—well, who’s to say the catchy number isn’t being sung by a guy wanting to pass himself off as part of the Madchester scene of the 1990s?
Locks of love: Thadd McQuade directs a relatively tamed Hair. Well, we’ll always have the original cast recordings.
And therein lies the challenge with staging today a musical that shocked and thrilled audiences two generations ago. The Broadway-era Hair inspired courtroom discussion about whether government could close down a show before it opened (town fathers in Tennessee apparently found lyrics about cunnilingus and sodomy along with the mass nudity that ended the first act to be just too much to anticipate). But these days, post-American Pie, with every middle schooler in America well versed in the art of going down, what can possibly be done with Hair to retain the vibrancy of its counter-cultural themes while acknowledging that times, as measured by the shock-o-meter, have changed?
McQuade, always an interesting director and much appreciated since his days with Foolery, has avoided going the nostalgia route. Nary a thread of tie-dye is in sight, and, even more significantly, the coiffures are pretty darn tame. He’s not presenting a ’60s homage act. Fine.
But what is he presenting? If it’s a commentary on how the current unpopular war and society’s response to it parallels Lyndon Johnson’s mess, well that doesn’t exactly work. All those songs about burning draft cards bear marginal relevance now (though one character’s line about how the draft is “white people sending black people to kill yellow people to defend the land they stole from red people” needs only a teeny bit of tweaking to sound current). If it’s a distillation of Hair’s themes, well, O.K., the completely stripped, vaguely industrial set helps toward that goal, though it mostly got me thinking about art from the Gulag or other such drab Eastern European themes. If it’s a collection of well-executed songs about youthful disgruntlement and the complications of freedom, now you’re getting close.
For if there’s one thing that can still be said about Hair, however the cast is costumed and wherever the scene is located, it’s this: Great score. “Aquarius,” “Easy To Be Hard,” “Colored Spade,” the list of hits goes on and on. Even if I couldn’t be sure why these kids were up there and what it was that motivated them, I was reassured by their musical performances. Let the sun shine in, indeed.