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Why Hair, the Tribal Rock Musical, Just Keeps on Grooving

US Marine in Vietnam Era Uniform - User: KTo288

After a 2009 US hit run, Hair in 2010 is rocking London’s West End. This revival says a lot about both cultural history and political performance.

The New York Times called it: “Thrilling! Intense, unadulterated joy”. The UK’s Daily Mail said, “Enough mega wattage to light up London”. How can a 1967 hippie-fest be a hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the hard-bitten, austere early years of the 21st century?

Hair: the Tribal Love-Rock Musical is about The Summer of Love (1966, USA, 1967, UK) and a hippie community of both sexes and all races protesting about drafting into the US army, singing songs that chimed with the spirit of a new era, the dawning of the age of Aquarius, with flowers in the hair and much Eastern religion thrown in.

Resonance With Today

Individual impotence to stop war parallels today. In 1967 the Vietnam War was raging, embroiling American troops in a conflict which cost nearly 60,000 US lives alone. Today, US troops with Britons and others are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and while losses are mounting, they’re not yet at the Vietnam scale.

The big difference between then and now, though, is that today’s US and British troops volunteer. Men and women sign up to serve a military career. In the 60s, young US men were drafted; it was extremely difficult to avoid service. Even Elvis Presley, at the early heights of his rock career, was drafted into the Army.

The burning of draft cards by young American boys who preferred hippie music, dope and free love was the symbolic act of ultimate rebellion on which Hair’s plot hinges. The subsequent death of the central character who went to fight after all, is made all the more poignant because of his earlier defiance, encouraged by his peers.

Hair is a political musical, in the same way that Hairspray is, making unsubtle statements in the Brechtian style about war, racial integration and miscegenation, individual freedom, youthful rebellion, sex and relationships, drug-taking and respect.

The Ingredients of a Lasting Musical

Many long-lasting musicals survive over decades on the back of a few powerful songs rather than what nowadays is regarded as thin narrative. To take one example, South Pacific has’I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair’and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ which have become perfect musical-popular standards with which audiences empathise.

In Hair , the title number ‘Hair’, ‘Aquarius’, ‘Good Morning Starshine’, ‘Ain’t Got No’ and ‘Let the Sunshine In’ all meet the criteria of being great numbers that not only evoke the hippie era itself, but are musically timeless.

It’s the ultimate ensemble show. The cast rarely leave the stage in their colourful, high-energy, youthful exuberance, as the visible band rocks out the high-octane soundtrack with gusto that’s integral to the experience, part of hanging out and having fun. Yet, from this crowd emerge individuals as selfish, self-motivated, idealistic, angry, frustrated, cruel as any people in any age. It reveals a truth about the hippie dream.

There is frequent interaction with the audience near the front in the stalls, hugging, stroking, comic asides. This spreads universal hippie love: make love, not war. In the second half, the feel-good nostalgia darkens. Claude’s body, in full military uniform, ends the show on a sombre note.

But then, out come handrails on steps into the auditorium (a neat comment on today’s health & safety obsessiveness). Stalls audience are beckoned on stage to groove with the cast. The good times return.

Youthful Rebellion

The long hair of the1960s was one outward sign of rejecting the normalcy of older generations. Unisex, garish, flowing, culturally diverse clothes served the same purpose: let it all hang out, tune in, turn on and drop out. Songs like’Hashish’ and ‘Sodomy’ reinforce rebellious shock.

The brief, tasteful nudity scene that closes the first half came the day after Britain’s Lord Chamberlain’s office lost its 230 year old power to prohibit any play “for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace”. In 1967/68 it was rebellion; in 2010 it’s artistic history.

The contraceptive pill encouraged the philosophy of free love: it was cool to sleep with anybody, any time, and even if pregnancies resulted, there was no obligation to look after the child or stay faithful. Equally, dropping out of the rat race in the late 60s was an indulgence not available to later generations born in more straitened economic circumstances, as Libby Purves points out in the Sunday Telegraph, 18 April 2010.

Each generation’s rejection of social mores held dear by predecessors, occurs naturally throughout history. Rewriting the past critically (family & society breakdown, sexual diseases), or watching through rose-tinted spectacles from comfortable middle age, is why Hair is a smash.

Audiences in New York in 2009 and London in 2010 are from teenagers drawn by hype and music, to middle-aged, who may have seen Hair first time round, or think they did. How many find it ironic that nostalgic hippies are balding, unable to climb on stage to groove with guys and chicks any more?

First published on Suite 101, 4th June 2010, deleted by them in a Google algorithm purge, January 2012.

Photo: US Marine in Vietnam Era Uniform – User: KTo288

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