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Culture Zohn: Hair Lets the Sun Shine In

04/02/2009 12:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Will Swenson as Berger and the cast of the Broadway revival of HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage. HAIR features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. Now performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street, NYC). Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Where are the sixties when we need them most?

Well, as of last night, right on west 45th Street. A buoyant revival of the musical Hair was enough to get me and a companion, both of us nostalgic for the original and everything it stood for, bouncing and tapping and letting the sun shine in.

1968, the year Hair originally opened, is often touted as the defining one of the generation; it included: the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Prague Spring, the first manned Apollo mission and Nixon getting elected, but things too like Andy Warhol getting shot and the debut of 60 Minutes. Hair actually opened the day after Columbia students occupied the administration building and shut the university down. The import of that year (a new book by Mark Kurlansky captures it in all its crazy detail) seems not to have been replicated. Yes 9/11 is a catch phrase, but it was only a day. And a very bad day at that.

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Gavin Creel as Claude (center) and the cast of the Broadway revival of HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage. HAIR features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. Now performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street, NYC). Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

What strikes one about Hair are the things it spawned which became the default in musicals (e.g. Rent): the ragtag cast is ensemble-style, mostly onstage the whole time as are the electronic-based musicians. They climb into the audience and up and down the wings from ladders, interacting, dancing, handing out flowers, bumping and grinding and mooning their way to peace and love, baby.

The other thing that stands out, and what one remembers less, is that almost the entire second act is a bad trip induced by Claude's visit to Whitehall, the downtown induction center which was infamous at the time, a one word ticket to hell.

The antiwar message is the one that resonates loudest, almost drowning out the Age-of-Aquarius one.

Both are worthy of revisiting.

It's unclear that aside from a few fringe diehards, that there is an antiwar movement anymore. Our president is about to send a flotilla of new troops into Afghanistan. Every once in a while the Code Pinks manage to harass and hound, but we haven't seen too much marching on Washington.

The Hair flower children are -- as we were wont to do -- using the war as a rallying point for a whole host of other things too: drugs, living together in sin, rebelling against our stuffy parents who wanted us to be, yikes, the doctors and lawyers and bankers we turned out to be (well, not all of us, to their dismay).

But the great thing about Hair is that it does not sugarcoat how petrifying it all was: I used to say that lines were drawn for reasons of sanity and crossing over too many of them was dangerous to our health. Hair shows that our bravado carried us through some very scary times.

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(L to R) Tommar Wilson, Will Swenson as Berger and Bryce Ryness as Woof in the Broadway revival of HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage. HAIR features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. Now performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street, NYC). Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The costumes look entirely contemporary as sixties fashion has been back in more times than I can count.

But the libretto ranges much wider and deeper, trying to get at some universal truths, even if they are from the point of view of some angsty adolescents.

Everybody should see Hair. Parents should take their kids even if it brings up the whole Did-you-do-drugs-mommy conversation that I ducked for years. (It all seems wildly tame by comparison with today's street drugs that are infinitely more crippling.) Twentysomethings should go on their own to see a little bit more of the "the sixties were so great" mantra their parents have been so relentlessly invoking.

A child from generation Y happened to show up on my doorstep the night before at 1:00 AM. He took one look at the album (yes, album) restored to prominence over the fireplace and gave me one of those, not-this-sixties-thing-again-looks. But he who is going to follow Phish around on their reunion tour for vacation this summer would do well to head over to Hair to see where their kind of thing began.

Sometimes, I was not sure if the actors onstage understood that their antics represented more than a plaintive wail from an entire generation which considered itself misunderstood and at war with the "greatest" generation, our parents, who had lived through World War Two. I know they were singing and acting their hearts out--but there was a certain disconnect, an emotional poignance that did not read entirely true.

But that's like saying you have to have lived during Shakespeare's time to do Shakespeare.

By the end of the show you are in love with the music all over again, humming things about white boys and black boys and sodomy and Frank Mills and Donna.

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Sasha Allen as Dionne (center) and the cast of the Broadway revival of HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage. HAIR features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. Now performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street, NYC). Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Look at the subjects of these songs! How was it that we weren't afraid to sing about race in such a provocative way? How was it that we were fearless about sex and drugs? We didn't know yet in 1968 how high a price would be extracted from us.

Yet, it's tragic to think that we have slipped all the way back to a time when you could not really mention race, or that we had a black president that could only finally acknowledge it long after he was elected, at the press conference last week.

There is nothing we could use more right now than a dose of a little less political correctness and a little more free love. Hair serves as an excellent reminder.

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Gavin Creel as Claude and Will Swenson as Berger with the cast of the Broadway revival of HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage. HAIR features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. Now performance at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street, NYC). Photo credit: Joan Marcus.