Broadway has always seen its purpose as entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. When 'Hair' hit the big stage in 1968 (after opening at Joe Papp's off-Broadway Public Theater a year earlier) it caused an uproar. Nudity! Social issues! Race! Gender! What will the neighbors think!
The neighbors loved it. Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot's little show grew to become a time piece and the icon of an age, encapsulating an era when speaking these issues aloud was still unheard of. It didn't hurt to have several show songs become world-wide smash hits. Still today, when we hear "Good Morning Starshine" and "Aquarius," our hearts are filled with peace and light. "Aquarius" is one of the best musical opening numbers we have ever seen.
What is surprising today is how subversive this show was and is. Songs like "Black Boys" and "White Boys," as well as "Sodomy" and "Hashish" would probably not be seen on a stage now, and the PC police would surely temper the constant sex and psychedelia references. In 2011 you would be unlikely to hear "we've got the white man sending the black man to fight the yellow man so we can defend land stolen from the red man" unless it were a toss-off joke in a sit-com.
And of course, you can't escape looking at the political message of 1967 -- cops beating kids over the head as they protested the war in Vietnam -- contrasted with today -- cops beating kids over the head as they protest America's economic inequities. The fact that so little has changed makes you squirm a little in your seat as you watch 'Hair' 40-some years after it was written.
This current production of "Hair" has two very strong moments: the beginning and the end. "Aquarius" opens and the surprising and touching "Let the Sun Shine In," which closes the show, with the actors marching up the aisles as we see the terrible detritus of what remains on the stage -- still leaves the audience aghast. These are beautiful sections, worthy of the best of Broadway.
Sadly, the rest of the show drags a bit. There are forty musical numbers listed in the playbill, but most are short, almost like a variety show where every actor gets to sing a chorus of his favorite song, and you can't easily understand the convoluted lyrics on most of them -- especially when the ensemble is singing. The stage at the Golden Gate really is too small for all these people, and the miking makes it next to impossible to pick out who is singing.
The band is terrific and there are more than the two standout songs: "My Conviction" and "Hare Krishna" in Act one and "What a Piece of Work is Man" and "Good Morning Starshine" in Act Two stand the test of time.
From the national company, Sheila (Sara King) makes us sit up and pay attention every time she sings. The others are good...but not little man jumping off his chair. It is not their fault -- this is a show about the power of the group, not the leadership of a few. Sound familiar?
RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Hair' Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. One star is for the opening, one for the closing and one for all the color. The BANGLE is for hiring that great ten piece band (five horns! Hallelujah!) and employing all those tie-dyers. As a legitimate Broadway event, 'Hair' stands up after several decades, and proves that a few beautiful songs can transcend the aging process.
The Golden Gate Theater
Market Street at Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco
Through November 20