Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

The year is 1967.  The United States is in the midst of fighting the Vietnam War.  In New York, the rock musical Hair makes its off-Broadway debut.

As described by Wikipedia, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is a rock musical by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot. A product of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s, several of its songs became anthems of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement. Hair is considered to be one of the most controversial musicals of its time due to its profanity, its depiction of the use of illegal drugs, its treatment of sexuality, its irreverence for the American flag, and its nude scene at the end of the first act. The musical broke new ground by defining the genre of “rock musical.”

Hair tells the story of the “tribe”, a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. Claude, his best friend Berger, their roommate Sheila, Woof, Crissy, Jeanie, Dionne, Hud and all of their hippie friends struggle to balance their young lives, loves and the sexual revolution with their rebellion against the Vietnam War and their conservative parents/society that they live in. Ultimately, Claude must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done, or to succumb to the pressures of his parents (and conservative America) to serve in Vietnam, compromising his gentle, complacent principles and risking his life.

Hair explores many of the themes of the hippie movement of the 1960s.  Hair opened the Broadway musical to racial integration; fully one-third of the cast was African American. Several songs and scenes from the show address racial issues and stereotypes, such as Colored Spade, Abie Baby, I’m Black/Ain’t Got No and Black Boys/White Boys.

Nudity, sexual freedom and drug use also play a big role in driving the plot of the musical. The short but still evident nude scene at the end of Act I was a subject of controversy and notoriety. Nudity was a big part of the hippie culture, especially as a statement about naturalism, spirituality, honesty, openness, and freedom.  Speaking of freedom, Hair glorifies sexual freedom in a plethora of ways. In the song “Sodomy”, Woof compels the tribe to “join the holy orgy Kama Sutra”.

Toward the end of Act 2, the tribe members reveal their free love tendencies when they banter back and forth about who will sleep with whom that night. Finally, regarding drug use in the musical, various illegal drugs are taken by the characters during the course of the show, most notably a hallucinogen during the trip sequence, kicked off by the song “Walking in Space,” which is all about the beauty of a drug trip.  Generally, the tribe favors “mind expanding” drugs, such as LSD and marijuana, while disapproving of other drugs such as speed and depressants. The song “Hashish” provides a list of pharmaceuticals, both illegal and legal, including cocaine, alcohol, LSD, opium and Thorazine, which is used as an antipsychotic.

Hair received mixed reviews after its initial premier on Broadway in 1968, due to the above controversies.  Even so, it remains to be one of the most popular musicals even today, having been revived once in 1977 and again in 2009.  There was also a national tour that kicked off in 2011.  In addition, Hair  appeared on London’s West End in 1968 and again in 2010.  Hair was even turned into a film, released in 1979.

I grew up listening to my dad’s Original Broadway Cast Recording, learning classics like “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In,” and when the show was revived in 2009, I saw it with a group of my theatre friends and we were lucky enough to go on stage during the finale and perform with “the tribe.”  This last February I was cast as the tribe member Dionne and was able to belt out the ending of “Let the Sunshine In” on stage for a packed audience.

Hair has always been one of my favorite musicals of all time to listen to, and getting to perform in it and become one with my inner-hippie was such a fun experience.  Even though life today isn’t really like how it was in the ’60s, Hair really is a timeless piece and I’m sure it will remain popular for years to come.