On a clammy, sweet Central Park Saturday evening, the New York Shakespeare Festival celebrated the 40th anniversary of he musical Hair with the first of a three performance revival. Many in the crowd that was well-mixed between genuine youths and paunchier, grayer veterans youths who were in their salad days when Hair was in its single digits wondered why Festival had decided to throw a three day party, rather than run the show for five or six weeks as one of its main summer offerings. The reason was soon apparent: Hair at 40 is thrilling but boring, exuberant but tedious, fresh but musty. You walk out humming the hit songs, and wondering how 1967, a year so seemingly clear in memory, can seem to have happened so very long ago.
One of the things that’s striking about the show is how poorly shock ages, and how very much this show must have depended on shock for its success. Saying cunnilingus onstage, imitating a hallucinogenic haze onstage, going buck naked onstage, seeing a show where all this happened onstage—these things must have marked one as quite the daring cultural pioneer in those days of yore. Now they are all quite commonplace, if not clichéd; indeed, a great corporate giant like HBO counts on being congratulated for boldly airing programs featuring nudity, profanity, and all sorts of wild behavior—plays from the Hair playbook updated and turned into lucrative home entertainment. Madonna built an enormously successful career by calculating how to take the spirit of rebellion and self-expression and turning it into cash. Sadly, when stripped of its power to shock, Hair is left being a largely bookless review and a collection of songs that for the most part bettered in lyrics and musicianship by whatever happens to be playing on your local Top 40 radio station at this very second. And that includes commercials.
However, the show’s very best songs are wonderful. Hearing the Fifth Dimension sing `Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’’ a million times over the years cannot dilute the impact of the single soaring voice that opens the show with an almost majestic Aquarius. Later in the first act, the song Hair remains a comic joy—clever, funny, exuberant. In both songs, a splendid spirit of triumphalism joyfully explodes from the stage. In these moments, the show’s original spirit shines through, and one shares the sheer pleasure the show takes in being young, in discovering the world anew, in believing one has the power to change things.
And then there’s the show’s ending, in which the character of Claude, a sweet-tempered young man just starting to enjoy life, ends up as a casualty of war. It is unfortunately, as subtle as a brick. And yet affecting. Sobering. Anger-making. It’s sad to see this show and realize that the shock ends, the idealism ebbs, the triumphalism wanes, but the bodies and still pile up. As Sonny and Cher sang so sardonically in the same summer of love when Hair first appeared, “the beat goes on.’’