a theatre, film & pop culture review
I’ve never cared for long hair on guys – to me, they just look dirty and disheveled. Perhaps then it would have been best had I grown up in the 50s so that lengthy locks could have some kind of traumatic effect on me. It may come as no surprise, then, that I was not one of the thousands tonight at the Delacorte Theater who were proudly sporting their tye dye tees and enthusiastically bopping their heads and tapping their feet to the new sounding musical that captured the nation’s attention and acclaim back in 1968.
This isn’t going to be one of my typical posts, as I don’t wish to review the Public’s production of that revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll musical, Hair. The production was well-directed, well-acted, well-sung, well-costumed, etc. I’ve heard nothing but good things from everyone regarding it, so there’s no point in my rehashing what everyone has already said.
What struck me, however, was that while I was walking out of the theatre and through Central Park, Iwanted so badly to continue the groove of the rock showtunes. But I didn’t want to let the sunshine in. Instead, I skimmed through my ipod playlists, pressed play, and contentedly settled back in my seat on the train as I heard “December 24th, 9 P.M., Eastern Standard Time…” While this particular show came nearly 30 years after the shock of such blatant song titles as “Sodomy” and “Hashish,” it too revolutionized musical theatre with its exploration of a timely and disturbing topic.
HAIR lacks luster in 2008.
The difference? I like Rent. I love Rent. I’m not a Renthead or anything, but I dig it. I get it. The music makes me move and yearn to sing along, and the characters and situation move me. Move me to tears, every time, to be completely honest, and if I want to embarrass myself even further, I’ve seen the show more times than any other (except perhaps my thesis show).
So why don’t I care for Hair? Rent is certainly steeped in its historical time just as much as Hair is, but Rent stays effective because it boasts fleshed-out, wholly sympathetic and entirely song-worthy characters. In this time of war, you can defend Hair‘s continuing topicality all you want, but the problem is it’s not shocking anymore. The controversy is gone. Very few are pro-war these days, and even fewer are traumatized by lyrics such as “black boys are delicious.” The show simply no longer possesses the gut-wrenching punch it once did, and the hippie culture is one only my parents’ generation and those older than them can truly appreciate. Hair has turned into a nostalgic piece. What’s more, besides a terrific few, some of the songs are horribly awkward and ill-conceived. “Frank Mills” was entirely cringe-inducing and not because of Allison Case’s performance. She was singing all of the correct notes, yet the notes weren’t correct. The song lacks melody, and uncomfortably so, and boasts some truly awful lyrics.
What I appreciate about Hair is that it’s so theatrical and can really incorporate the audience and almost trick those unwilling to engage in its politics. The Public’s production did not engage the audience as much as I would’ve liked, but it certainly hinted at the musical’s possibilities to stimulate and interact with everyone. Unfortunately, none of that is enough in 2008. Declaring hair as a symbol of rebellion causes my eyes to roll, and a black female Abe Lincoln makes me yawn. We’ve seen this all before, and it was much more powerful in 1968.
Now I’m not about to defend Rent as an artistic masterpiece. It’s not. But where Hair only outlinesits characters in an almost Brechtian way, Rent offers flesh and blood. Yeah, there’s awkward lyrics here and there, and yes, there are musical sequences I wish Jonathan Larsen had had the presence of mind to cut before his premature death (helloooo, “Contact.” Oy). But I care about lesbian-loving Mark and self-absorbed Roger more than enough to follow them on their journey – and then return to it, time and time again. I’m sure a bit of it has to do with the fact that Rent‘s historical pertinence touches me more than Hair‘s: I did, after all, grow up in the 80s and 90s when the AIDS epidemic was at its full and terrifying height, when grunge was the latest fashion fad, and when rock was forcefully re-emerging amidst a pop-addled music scene. I have no immediate connection to Vietnam, the fierce rebellion against domesticity, or the need to find a spiritual center through mind-altering drugs – but clearly, as the enthusiastic audience at the Delacorte Theater this past Thursday night demonstrated, I’m one of the few.
So why is that? And why did it even occur to me to compare these two musicals? Because they’re both musically revolutionary? Both rock-based? Steeped in their historical periods? All I can say is that I think there’s a reason that Rent has almost without break been firmly ensconced on Broadway and constantly on tour since its 1996 premiere, and that Hair has never had a lasting revival or an endlessly revolving tour. From my own experience, timelessness in theatre seems to result from its humanity and the relatability of its characters, if not of its specific situations. Future generations may never fully understand how AIDS ravaged our country, but they’ll feel Collin’s pain at losing a loved one to the disease. When the cast parted during Hair‘s finale to reveal Claude lying dead on the American flag, I didn’t feel anything.
Then again, maybe that’s more a comment on the state of the country than on the musical itself.