By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There are some who contend that Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado's 1968 musical, Hair, nearly dealt a fatal blow to the American musical. Without the ascendancy of Stephen Sondheim and the emergence of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 1970s, musicals would barely have scored a blip on the theatrical radar. And those two gained international success by basically reinventing the form, Sondheim with his devilishly ambivalent lyric-play and themes and Webber with his hook-heavy melodies lifted straight from pop and rock 'n' roll balladry.
I'll lay my cards on the table. We should be relieved that the likes of Lerner and Loewe found their multicolored, smiley-faced helium balloons punctured by the rude and explicit Hair. When it comes to musicals, my gay gene is missing a chromosome; their charm, on film or on stage, has by and large escaped me. With the brilliant exception of Sondheim's work, musicals seem to be a genre that does all the work for audiences. They rarely let you discover the nuances of the material on your own, dictating in rather strident terms when you are supposed to laugh, cry, feel scared, or be happy. Musicals at their worst feel anonymous, condescending, and clumsy, like a distant relative at a family reunion who's constantly trying to ingratiate himself even though he can't remember your name.
I suspect I'm not alone in critical circles, although many stage pundits would sooner rip out their tongues than indict an entire species whose veins throb with the very essence of theatrical performance. The proof is the perennial crowning of that individual or composition that has "reinvented" or "evolved" the musical form:There were the aforementioned Hair, Sondheim, and Webber; this year has seen Jonathan Larson's Rent land on the cover of Newsweek with a butt-kissing article by Jack Kroll that, to be fair, only echoed the ecstatic response among theater audiences for this '90s update of Pucini's La Boheme.
The parallels between Rent and Hair extend beyond the critical calls of "vanguard!" and the monosyllabic titles. Both are somber portraits of an under-30 generation that hasn't quite found a niche in the larger world, but has spun a nifty world view from its own alienation. Both attempt to reconcile youthful exuberance with the specter of mass death; in Rent it's AIDS, in Hair the Vietnam War. Both climax with the death of a central character at the hands of the shows' respective demons, although Mimi in Rent is cheesily revived to report what she saw during her short visit to the afterlife. And both rely on musical styles borrowed from outside the American theater.
Now that I've admitted my own distaste for musicals, let me hasten to add that I'm a big fan of the music in Hair--especially as it compares to the recently released, original cast recording of Rent. The horror of HIV is a far more relevant truth in my own life than the Vietnam War, yet despite Rent's scenes of an AIDS support group and lovers sharing an AZT moment, its music shambles through my stereo speakers with all the urgency of a Michael Bolton song. (I have not seen the New York production.) More often than not, the choruses are tepid hooks that merely repeat the title, and the same melody recurs so often throughout different songs, the music feels flattened out, indistinct, monotonous.
I am happy to report, after finally seeing a live performance of Hair via Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's current production, that the show retains its ability to shock. Indeed, certain moments feel more confrontational than ever; when was the last time you saw an entire company light up a fat spliff and sing about the joys of marijuana? Or watched an ostensibly heterosexual male cast member confess his lust for a male pop singer (in this case, Mick Jagger) and proceed to make out with a poster of his adored? Let's not even mention the parallels between the Roman Catholic communion wafer and LSD tabs, or besieged Vietnamese citizens and defeated American Indians.
In other words, Hair was a canny choice for Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's '96-'97 season opener. Unfortunately, the production by directors Christopher Presley and Scott A. Eckert and choreographer Loris Anthony Beckles feels more competent than inspired. The bare-bones power of the music is relied upon so much, you feel like you're listening to a cast recording (mind you, not the cast recording) instead of witnessing a full-blooded revival. The songs stand on their own, but the cast seems to be hiding behind them; the singing is professional, occasionally even stirring, but many of the performances are strangely hesitant. Neophytes to the music and sensibility of Hair probably will discover joyfully subversive moments; everyone else will start glancing at their watches by the end of the first act.
All that said, anyone who has relied upon Milos Forman's 1979 film version is in for a surprise when they're reacquainted with the original intentions of McDermot-Ragni-Rado's musical. Hair is officially subtitled "the American tribal love-rock musical." This only makes sense when you see the show live: Hippies are treated here as a fiercely territorial clan that performs its rituals of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll under the glare of moonlight. They are jealous, zealous, and intolerant of anyone who strays from their absolutist stands on personal and political relationships.