As I left the theater this evening, I admit that I had a hard time putting my finger on Hair's message. Sure, the music was powerful and the cast did a nice job showcasing the feel of the late 60s. But, at the same time, the narrative to this musical left something to be desired.
There's the central question - and moral challenge - of what Claude will do after laboring over his decision over whether to leave his hippie friends behind and head off to war, as the country has recruited him to do, or to remain anti-establishment with his conviction intact. No doubt, it's an interesting and difficult predicament that Claude grapples with. Yet, for this audience member, Claude's story wasn't compelling enough to carry the whole play. What was missing for me was a genuine care for Claude. As the pay wrapped up - and Claude's story ended beside his brethren - I wondered if I'd somehow missed something, particularly the moment when Claude was supposed to start to matter to me.
I began to suspect that back in 1968, when the show first hit the Broadway stage, it resonated more with an audience who was literally living through those troubling times. However, this revival received much acclaim for its ability to usher today's audience back to an era left behind long ago. So I turned to past reviews to fill in what I felt I was missing from my initial assessment of the performance. It turns out, I needed a lot.
For one, Ben Brantley in The New York Times said:
But what distinguishes "Hair" from other recent shows about being young is the illusion it sustains of rawness and immediacy, an un-self-conscious sense of the most self-conscious chapter in a person's life. Notice I did say "illusion." Ms. Paulus and her creative team have worked hard at their seamless spontaneity. Karole Armitage's happy hippie choreography, with its group gropes and mass writhing, looks as if it's being invented on the spot.
This was something that did not go unnoticed. Actors whizzed on and off with such precision that you couldn't even catch them leaving for costume changes. Your eyes raced back and forth across the stage, up and down the aisles, and into the rafters while you tried to keep up with the show's frenetic pace and movement. Merely fitting twenty or so actors on the stage at once is an accomplishment; making all the pieces move in sync with each other is downright mystifying.
If the choreography wasn't enough, the music serves a similar purpose in setting the frenzied mood. Michael Kuchwara said in the Associated Press:
If the songs don't exactly move the plot forward, they serve as atmospheric reminders of what the show is about, a perfect blending of theatrical and pop.
Once I found myself agreeing with the reviewers about all the play's fine staging points, I accepted that this play should be judged on the power of its singing and dancing, not the narrative that strings the two together. That's what separates musicals like Hair from more traditional plays. The familiar songs and elaborate dance numbers are not staged merely as accessories to the story; rather, they add another dimension to the performance that can't be neglected while judging the entirety of the production.
If you look at just Claude's relationship to his friends, family and his country, you'll wind up searching for something more. He's a stiff caricature of an American teenager. He becomes a character worth caring about only once you factor in how the selected music and choreography display emotions and excitement that he doesn't show otherwise.