background and analysis by Scott Miler
On February 2, 1962, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all aligned in the constellation Aquarius. All seven of these heavenly bodies had not come together for 2,500 years. Many people believed it was the dawning of a new age, the age of Aquarius, symbolizing a pooling of everyone's creativity, an age of communalism.
When the rock musical Hair opened, John J. O’Connor wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "No matter the reaction to the content . . . I suspect the form will be important to the history of the American musical." And it was, paving the way for the non-linear concept musicals that dominated musical theatre innovation in the 1970s: Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, Working, and others. And yet, some Broadway establishment figures refused then and now to accept this radical departure. Even today, some people can’t see past the appearance of chaos and randomness to the brilliant construction and sophisticated imagery underneath. In 1996, while reviewing Hair’s godchild, the rock musical Rent, Howard Kissel wrote in the New York Daily News that Hair had been nothing more than ‘formless amateurism." Even as recently as the summer of 2000, one hapless reviewer in St. Louis wrote of the show, "Hair remains a musical theatre anomaly, a freaked-out mish-mash of psychedelic-babble . . . You’d have to be stoned to have written it and it would help if you’re watching it."
Back in the late 1960s, the artists of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway had been complaining that the professional theatre was dead, and even worse, that it was boring. Hair was the revolution they had been waiting for. With very little plot, a unit set, plenty of four-letter words, explicit sexual content, rituals, drugs, lyrics that didn’t rhyme, music that didn’t follow the rules, and the sound of genuine rock and roll on the Broadway stage for the first time, this musical knocked Broadway on its collective ass. Not only did many of the lyrics not rhyme, but many of the songs didn’t really have endings, just a slowing down and stopping, so the audience didn’t know when to applaud. Other songs segued directly into the next number so the audience didn’t have time to applaud. The show rejected every convention of Broadway, of traditional theatre in general, and of the American musical in specific. And it was brilliant.
Most surprising of all, it was an enormous hit. Director Tom O’Horgan said at the time that he saw Hair as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create "a theatre form whose demeanor, language, clothing, dance, and even its name accurately reflect a social epoch in full explosion."
The show opened first at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in October 1967 for a limited, eight-week run. When its run ended, Papp and independent producer Michael Butler moved the show to the Cheetah, a New York disco. Papp then pulled out, and after massive revisions (including thirteen new songs), new cast members, a new director (O’Horgan), a new choreographer (they wanted the movement to look more spontaneous, less "choreographed"), and the addition of designers Jules Fisher and Robin Wagner, Michael Butler moved the show to Broadway, opening it in April 1968 at the Biltmore Theatre. Butler’s astrologer picked the opening date to insure a successful run. Hair acted as a launching pad for the careers of Diane Keaton, Melba Moore, Donna Summer, Tim Curry, Nell Carter, Peter Gallagher, Joe Montegna, Ben Vereen, Cliff DeYoung, Meat Loaf, and many other performers who went on to great success.
Hair criticizes and satirizes racism, discrimination, war, violence, pollution, sexual repression, and other societal evils. It is a truly psychedelic musical (in the true sense of the word), perhaps the only one ever on Broadway. The show is made up of a barrage of images, often very surrealistic, often overwhelming, coming at the audience fast and furious, not always following logically; but when taken together, those images form a wonderful, unified, and ultimately comprehensible whole. At its best, the show really can cause the kind of euphoria in its audience that one usually associates with psychedelic drugs. As with most satire, Hair makes fun of racism, war, sex, and other things by carrying them to ridiculous extremes (as in the songs "Sodomy" and "Colored Spade"). Hair shocks the audience (though that is not really its goal) by challenging what they believe, by showing how absurd, how offensive, how nonsensical, and in some cases, how dangerous are the behavior and language that society calls "normal." And the show asks some good questions: Why did we send American soldiers halfway around the world to Vietnam to kill strangers when there was no direct threat to our country? Why can’t we talk openly about sex? Why are certain words "dirty" and other words that mean the same thing acceptable? Why are there so many offensive words for black people but hardly any for white people? Why are so many straight people interested in what gay people do in private? If the Constitution guarantees free speech, why can’t we burn the flag? Is it right to protest and refuse to follow laws which are unjust?
The hippies of the 1960s were the second generation of the "beat" movement of the 1950s. (Interestingly, most hippies didn’t call themselves "hippies" – they called themselves "freaks.") They were a counter-culture movement that actually included many separate sub-movements – the drug culture, nudists and naturalists, vegetarians, "Jesus freaks," communes, environmentalists, Krishna followers, mystics, and many others. The thing that united them was their rejection of the mainstream culture, the culture of their parents. And they weren’t all kids; the hippie movement started in the early 60s and by 1969, many hippies were in their thirties and older. In fact, the older hippies were often revered as tribal wise men. The hippies were about nonviolence, individualism, a rejection of materialism, about spirituality but also a rejection of institutionalized religion, and above all, about the desire to reach a higher, purer level of consciousness. Their drug use was not just an escape; it was also a means to help them find the spirituality they believed their parents had lost in the meaningless hypocrisy of organized religion. Most hippies differentiated between "good" and "bad" drugs. The "good" drugs were mind-expanding, psychedelic drugs like marijuana, peyote, and LSD, that helped them find spirituality. The "bad" drugs were those used only for escape, like alcohol, nicotine, tranquilizers (like valium), cocaine, and heroin. The abuse of prescription drugs by adults is satirized in Act I as two mothers (played by men) bemoan their rebellious daughters and Berger responds by offering tranquilizers to several famous authority figures who were having trouble with rebellious kids – Rabbi Schultz (a high-profile Jewish political figure), the Rockefeller Foundation, President Nixon, Vice-President Humphrey, and the Pope. The hippies condemned this kind of drug use. Notice that the drug trip song "Walking in Space" in Act II of Hair says explicitly that the two reasons for taking the drugs are total self-awareness and meeting God. Paul McCartney said in one 60s interview, "God is the space between us. God is the table in front of you. It just happened I realized all this through weed."
It’s not surprising that the hippie movement sprung up. After World War II, America went through a very strange time. There was prosperity like the country hadn’t seen in quite some time and material wealth was at an all-time high; but there was also the threat of nuclear bombs. In addition, the women who had learned during the war that they could work, that they could participate actively in society, that they could have lives outside the home, were all now thrust back into the roles of wife and mother. After having discovered genuine independence and freedom, they were now put back into their old repressive roles. After relative social chaos during the war, the already repressive American society became even more repressive to try to restore the pre-war social order – which was, of course, impossible. The genie could not be put back in the lamp. As there had been during other times of social upheaval (like the turn of the century and the Depression), there was a real friction between the demands for conformity and conservatism, versus the instinctive human need to express oneself, made even worse by the taste of freedom women had gotten while their husbands and boyfriends were off fighting the war. There was also a new sexual freedom knocking at America’s door, courtesy of the invention of the birth control pill.
The "baby boomer" children growing up in the fifties had all the consumer goods they could want but found little to feed their souls. They had had extremely permissive childhoods and were then expected to fit into a repressively conformist adult world. Their parents taught conservative values while the parents’ own social drinking reached heights not seen since the 1920s. Also, many more kids than ever before were being sent to college, where they were learning to question everything, to form their own opinions about the world. They found that the liberal arts education which their parents so wanted for them turned out highly educated men and women with no real world skills, lots of unanswered existential questions, and no preparation to get a job and start a family. Even worse, these kids left college with endless possibilities before them – too many possibilities, it turned out. Whereas earlier generations had been locked into taking over family businesses, the baby boomers had more freedom in choosing their futures and no guideposts, and in many cases, the wide array of choices proved overwhelming.
Along with all this, the black civil rights movement was gaining steam and all these disillusioned kids found a strong, viable model for social protest. Following the example of Martin Luther King Jr. and other great Black leaders, the youth of America, especially those on college campuses, started protesting all the things that they saw wrong with America: racism, environmental destruction, poverty, sexism and sexual repression, violence at home and the war in Vietnam, depersonalization from new technologies, and corruption in politics. The hippies’ predecessors, the Beat generation, had been a far less political counterculture. But the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the expansion of the draft, more aggressively enforced drug laws and increased anti-loitering sweeps in parks and public spaces forced the hippies to become political, and a new underground press sprung up. Contrary to popular opinion, the hippies had great respect for America and believed that they were the true patriots, the only ones who genuinely wanted to save our country and make it the best it could be once again.
Another difference between the Beats and the hippies was the audience for their respective art. The Beats’ chosen art forms were poetry and jazz, and they readily admitted that their art was elitist. The hippies, on the other hand, were determined to create art of the people and their chosen art form, rock/folk music was by its definition, populist. Due in large part to Bob Dylan, country music also became a big part of the hippie music movement (as represented in Hair by "Don’t Put It Down"). But possibly the biggest difference between the music of the hippies and the music of the Beats was that the hippies’ music was often very angry, its anger directed at those who would prostitute the Constitution, who would sell America out, who would betray what America stood for; in other words, directed at their parents and the government.
In 1967, twenty thousand people gathered in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco for the world’s first "Be-In." (The term "Be-In" became very popular and was later parodied as the title of the TV show "Laugh-In.") Despite the hippies anti-capitalist leanings and alongside their populist intentions, major record labels got the message and immediately signed several San Francisco bands to gigantic advances. In early 1967, Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones told one interviewer that things were changing, that the world "was about to enter the age of Aquarius. There is a young revolution in thought and manner about to take place." By 1968, high school teachers were teaching Bob Dylan’s lyrics as poetry in English classes and psychedelic artists like Peter Max were designing mainstream advertisements.
The reason the creators of Hair gave their musical its title was that long hair was the hippies’ flag – their "freak flag," they called it – their symbol not only of rebellion but also of new possibilities, a symbol of the rejection of discrimination and restrictive gender roles (a philosophy celebrated in the song "My Conviction"). It symbolized equality between men and women. In addition to the long hair, the hippies’ chosen clothing also made statements. Drab work clothes (jeans, work shirts, pea coats) were a rejection of materialism. Clothing from other cultures, particularly the Third World and native Americans, represented their awareness of the global community and their rejection of U.S. imperialism and selfishness. Simple cotton dresses and other natural fabrics were a rejection of synthetics, a return to natural things and simpler times. Some hippies wore old World War II or Civil War jackets as way of co-opting the symbols of war into their newfound philosophy of nonviolence. On top of all this, nudity was a big part of the hippie culture, both as a rejection of the sexual repression of their parents and also as a statement about naturalism, spirituality, honesty, openness, and freedom. The naked body was beautiful, something to be celebrated and appreciated, not scorned and hidden. They saw their bodies and their sexuality as gifts, not as "dirty" things.
Experimental Theatre and the Bantu
In addition to the social influences of the 60s, Hair also came from New York’s experimental theatre movement. In the late 60s when Hair was created, this movement had been going on for quite some time, led by directors like Joseph Chaikin, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Antonin Artaud; writers like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco; companies like The Living Theatre, the Group Theatre, and the Open Theatre; and theatre spaces like Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino, and Ellen Stewart’s LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club. The theatre works created during this time were based heavily on improvisation, on group creation, on ritual, on exploring new ways to communicate with an audience, and new ways to involve an audience directly in the act of performance. The creation process, often done in extended workshops, was as important – or, some cases, more important – than the actual presentation of the work. They rejected the conventional notions of director, playwright, script, rehearsal, and character.
Ritual was important to Hair because of its roots in experimental theatre but also because of its spiritual roots. The show’s opening number, "Aquarius," is a ritual summoning of the tribe, a formal calling together of the members of this group of hippies. In the original Broadway production, when the song began, the hippies were out in the audience mingling with audience members. They froze and then began moving to the stage in slow motion, coming together on stage forming a large circle, a potent symbol of life that would be used throughout the show. Ritual is used in many moments in the show, in the mock Catholic mass of "Sodomy," in the Be-In, the passing of the joints before the trip, in the marching and chanting that happen throughout the show.
Another area the experimental theatre movement was exploring was the idea of words as sounds, as percussion, or as background noise, divorced from literal meaning, something Gertrude Stein had played with earlier in the century. In songs like "Ain’t Got No Grass," "Three-Five-Zero-Zero," and "The Bed," words come at the audience like a freight train, so fast, so quirky that no audience could ever catch it all or comprehend it all. But the purpose of these lyrics isn’t just to be comprehended; they are to be enjoyed as abstract sounds. Towards the end of "Ain’t Got No Grass," the lyric deconstructs itself into a list of words and phrases based on the sound "pop." The words don’t make complete sense; they have become percussion. They are no longer meaningful words; they are now just sounds. Hair was the first impressionist Broadway musical, in which lyrics, dialogue, plot, and character were often not drawn conventionally – they were implied, suggested, abstract. Just as the impressionist painters created only the impression of form and structure, left to be interpreted and synthesized by the eye and mind, Hair did the same thing with the art of theatre.
Hair director Tom O’Horgan was very directly involved in the experimental theatre movement (and after Hair, would go on to bring that philosophy to the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar as well). Both Gerome Ragni and James Rado, Hair’s authors, came out of this world too, although both had also had mainstream success as actors on Broadway and elsewhere. In fact, Rado’s initial dream was to become a mainstream Broadway songwriter in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. Interestingly, neither Ragni nor Rado were hippies themselves (and only two of the original Broadway cast were); but the authors found the hippie counter-culture fascinating and once they decided to write Hair, they spent all their time in Greenwich Village with the hippies, doing research. Off-Broadway producer Eric Blau (who would go on to create the cult hit musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris) introduced Ragni and Rado to composer Galt MacDermot, who agreed to set their bizarre lyrics to music. Blau was the show’s first producer, but when Papp guaranteed an eight-week run at the Public Theatre, Blau encouraged Rado and Ragni to take it; Blau could only guarantee an opening, no more.
MacDermot had been born in Montreal but went to college at Capetown University in South Africa. He brought this African influence to the music of Hair, using the rhythms of the rituals of the Bantu tribe, the driving pulse of African music, and the habit of musically setting stresses on unexpected syllables (as in "What a Piece of Work is Man," "Ain’t Got No Grass," and other songs).
A Really, Really Brief Look at the War
In its first, 1967 version, Hair was almost exclusively about the war in Vietnam. It was only when the rewrites were done as they moved the show to Broadway in 1968 that other issues were added and made more prominent. Vietnam was a major issue in the hippie movement, and though it’s prominence was reduced in the second version of the show on Broadway, it still formed the backdrop of the only real story line in the show, that of Claude going off to war; and an understanding of the background of the war is important to an understanding of Hair.
Of course, it’s important to remember that people still disagree not only on interpretations of the war and motivations for the war, but they also disagree on actual facts about the war. It’s impossible to find two reference sources today that tell the exact same story.
Vietnam had been a possession of France since the late nineteenth century. During World War II, the French gave Vietnam to the Japanese. Toward the end of the war, a Vietnamese leader named Ho Chi Minh established a government headquartered in Hanoi, in the north part of the country, with a constitution based loosely on the U.S. Constitution (he was an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson). But after the war was over, Churchill insisted that Vietnam should return to French "ownership," against the wishes of the Vietnamese people, and the French invaded to take the country back.
In 1954, a Vietnamese communist faction under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh rose up against the French and finally drove them back out of Vietnam. An international conference in Geneva, Switzerland that year negotiated a cease fire and decided to split the country in two, leaving the north half of the country to Ho Chi Minh. The conference also demanded that free elections be held in 1956 to reunify the country. But the leaders in the south refused to hold the elections because they knew how widespread support was for the increasingly communist Ho Chi Minh. The U.S. supported this refusal because there were politicians in the U.S. who were so terrified by communism, so obsessed with its perceived threat, that they believed the U.S. had to prevent the communists from taking over Vietnam. These politicians believed that there was a secret international alliance of communist countries, and that if Vietnam fell to the communists, they would then systematically take over the world, country by country, until the U.S. itself fell to communism. Of course, these politicians were wrong – there was no such international threat or alliance.
Based on this unfounded fear, the U.S. went in and set up a pseudo-democratic puppet government in the south part of the Vietnam in 1956, claiming rule over the entire country; but Vietnamese in the north refused to recognize this government (it actually had very little power outside the city of Saigon). In addition, some of the South Vietnamese saw the Americans as no different than the French, just another foreign power who wanted to control them. In the early 1960s, a coalition of South Vietnamese communist groups, called the Vietcong (which were basically independent of the communists in North Vietnam, though connected in some ways) rose up in the south against the U.S. puppet government.
In 1964, the North Vietnamese fired on U.S. personnel and President Johnson convinced Congress to give him free reign to take "all necessary measures" to retaliate, an act that was unprecedented and arguably un-Constitutional. Some historians believe Johnson needed the war in order to energize the political right wing, to jump start dormant patriotism, and to galvanize the American people behind his social programs and his dream of the Great Society. Unfortunately, it would not end up working the way he planned. Johnson began by ordering the bombing of North Vietnam.
Then in 1965, the U.S. sent the first combat ground troops – 3,500 men – into South Vietnam to fight the two enemies, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. Anti-war protests, marches and demonstrations began in America around 1967, due in large part to the fact that this was the first war ever broadcast on television; and the coverage wasn’t what we’re used to today, with correspondents reporting from the rooftops of hotels. During the Vietnam war, the reporters and cameramen were in combat with the ground troops, beaming home pictures of blood and carnage, bringing the full force of the horror of war into American living rooms. Most Americans had never seen war like this. It was real like it had never been before. The protests escalated and continued throughout the rest of the war. (The Pentagon learned its lesson and never allowed such open access to the press again, and not surprisingly, there have been virtually no major anti-military protests since then.)
By 1969, with no victory in sight, President Nixon talked about plans for U.S. troop withdrawal, promising to end the war within three years. In 1973, a cease fire was agreed to and most of the U.S. ground troops left Vietnam, but the bombing of North Vietnam continued. Eventually, in 1975, the North Vietnamese took Saigon, the biggest city in the south (renaming it Ho Chi Minh City), and effectively "won" the war, forcing the U.S. to pull out completely. Interestingly, once the communists took over, the U.S. politicians were proved wrong. Instead of communism spreading across Asia and Europe, the communist countries started fighting with each other and Vietnam got into a bloody war with communist China.
During the Vietnam war, more than 47,000 Americans were killed in action and more than 303,000 wounded in action. The South Vietnamese suffered about 200,000 killed and 500,000 wounded. The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong suffered about 900,000 killed and an unknown number wounded. More than a million Vietnamese civilians were killed. The financial cost of the war ended up being about two hundred billion dollars.
The legacy of the war is that America lost its innocence. It was no longer the unquestioned Good Guy in world affairs. The reception for troops returning from the war was not always friendly. Many Americans felt the war was immoral, and America’s long held image of itself as global champion of the oppressed was replaced by an image of America as bully, interfering where it had no business, killing innocent men, women, and children, and lying about it all to the public.
Once Congress had given President Johnson the power to do pretty much anything he wanted in Vietnam, he decided to send in ground troops to secure air bases and begin a full-scale ground war, marking the official escalation of the war. On the morning of March 8. 1965, three thousand, five hundred Marines – the first ground troops of the war – came ashore near the Da Nang airbase, welcomed by Vietnamese girls and four American advisors holding a bed sheet proclaiming "Welcome to the Gallant Marines."
But, interestingly enough, that may not be what the song "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" in Hair refers to. Jim Rado has said that the song was inspired by an Alan Ginsberg’s poem. Ginsberg’s "Wichita Vortex Sutra," written in February 1966, contains almost all the freaky, violent, surrealistic images in the song "Three-Five-Zero-Zero," often quoted word-for-word. In the poem, General Maxwell Taylor proudly reports to the press that three thousand, five hundred of the enemy were killed in one month. He repeats the number, digit by digit, for effect: "Three-Five-Zero-Zero." In addition to the many other images from the poem that found their way into the song, Ginsberg also refers to 256 Vietcong killed and 31 captured, which became 256 captured in the song lyric. Though the song starts out somber and intense, spilling out Ginsberg’s images of death and dying, it turns midway into a manic dance number, an absurdist celebration of killing that echoes Maxwell’s glee at reporting the enemy casualties, commenting on the Happy Face that the U.S. government tried to put on the ever diminishing returns of the war in Vietnam. While our soldiers (and theirs) kept dying, Washington tried to whip up World War II-style support for the war among Americans. But we had seen the war on our TV screens this time, and we weren’t celebrating.
Let the Sun Shine In
References to the war are peppered throughout the Hair script. The only dramatic through-line in the show focuses on Claude’s dilemma over whether or not to go to war or burn his draft card. In addition to the conversations about Claude going to the induction center to be drafted, the war is an ever present image in the show. During Claude’s Act II drug trip, the images of war pile up in both comic images and disturbingly dramatic images. In most productions of Hair, it’s made clear that Berger gives Claude a "special" joint before the trip in Act II, one presumably laced with more powerful hallucinogens than the others. Since the hippies believed that some drugs (LSD, peyote, pot, and others) opened and expanded the mind, increasing the power of the mind, helping the user reach higher consciousness and greater understanding, we can assume that Berger gives Claude a more powerful drug specifically to help him make up his mind, to clear away his indecision about Vietnam.
The trip begins with the song "Walking in Space," most of which describes the sensations of being high, but there are a few references to the war here. Once the song is ended, everything else in the trip is triggered by Claude’s fear of going to war. The first images are of young men, Claude among them, jumping out of a helicopter into the jungles of Vietnam. When Claude lands, he sees two American soldiers chasing a Vietnamese peasant. He turns around and sees George Washington and his troops, retreating from an attack by Indians. The next image is of Ulysses S. Grant assembling his troops, which include Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Calvin Coolidge, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, and General Custer, all symbols of war in Claude’s mixed-up, drugged-out mind. Also among Grant’s troops is Aretha Franklin, a wonderful non-sequitor that might represent Claude’s knowledge that the draft is racist – or it might just be the kind of random image a drugged out mind conjures. Grant’s troops dance a minuet for a bit and then are attacked by African witch doctors (probably a reference to Hud, who is referred to as the boogey man in Act I), and the witch doctors kill everyone but Lincoln. Hud becomes LeRoi Jones, the black social activist, writers, and publisher, and he confronts Lincoln (played by a black woman, by the way), threatening to harpoon him/her, making fun of the black separatists of the 60s who refused to allow whites to participate in the Civil Rights movement. Lincoln calms Hud/Jones down and proceeds to deliver a crazy, soulful Gettysburg Address.
The trip continues as the killing of war comes to the forefront of Claude’s mind. A succession of comic stereotypes murder each other – first monks, who are killed by Catholic nuns, who are killed by astronauts, who are killed by Chinese, who are killed by guerillas, who are killed by a native American. This sequence is played three times, forward and backward as the trip spins out of control. The action continues as Claude’s parents appear with a drill sergeant who have a conversation with a suit Claude has left behind, the only thing that remains after Claude is killed in war. The tribe begins playing children’s games which escalate until they all end up murdering each other. The song "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" begins and the tribe becomes the walking dead, advancing on the audience, accusing them of complicity in the horror of war. By the end of the song, everyone has died again, agonizing, slow deaths. Two tribe members have been watching all this from a platform above the fray and they sing "What a Piece of Work is Man," an ironic tribute to the majesty and nobility of mankind, sung as the two singers walk though the battlefield of murdered bodies. A short section of "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" returns and the trip ends.
The finale, "The Flesh Failures" summarizes the themes of the show, particularly the insanity of war and our consumerist culture, obsessed with comfort as people are being murdered in southeast Asia. We pass each other on the street, bundled up in our designer clothes, created and purchased specifically to display our level of wealth and success, too busy to stop and connect to each other, too busy to help the homeless lying on the street, too preoccupied with our superficial lives, our appointments, our scramble to accumulate possessions (a theme Hair’s descendent Rent would return to). The song tells us that somewhere inside, buried beneath all this, hidden deep down, there is greatness in the human race, that we have such potential, but that we have failed. We have failed by succumbing to comfort, to the demands of the flesh, instead of aiming for something higher. Claude comes forward, now dead, killed in Vietnam, invisible to the tribe – just as returning Vietnam vets were "invisible" in American culture – and as he reprises his theme song, "Manchester England," the tribe sings in counterpoint "Eyes Look Your Last," a musical setting of a speech from Romeo and Juliet. The words are Romeo’s, after he finds Juliet’s (apparently) dead body, and just before he takes his own life. The last line of this section, "the rest is silence," is Hamlet’s last line before dying at the end of Hamlet. We are killing ourselves, the tribe is telling us. After another verse of "The Flesh Failures" the show finishes with "Let the Sun Shine In."
But "Let the Sun Shine In" is not the happy song most people think it is. It’s a call to action. The tribe is begging us, the audience, to change things, to stop the killing, the hatred, the discrimination, the destruction of our world. They are saying that we are in a time of darkness (as described in detail by "The Flesh Failures," "Easy to Be Hard," and other songs), that it is now time to let the sun shine in and change things. It’s significant that the lyric doesn't say that the sun is already shining and everything is going to be fine. It says we have to take action, we have to let the sun shine on the darkness around us, and the implication is unmistakable – if we don’t let the sun shine, it will be the end of us.
The cast of Hair is called "The Tribe," and in each production of Hair around the world, the cast chooses a tribe name, generally naming themselves after a native American tribe. The practice is not just cosmetic. This show, perhaps more than almost any other, really is an ensemble piece, one in which the entire cast must work together, must like each other, and often within the show, must work as a single organism. All the sense of family, of belonging, of responsibility and loyalty inherent in the word "tribe" has to be felt by the cast. And the mere choosing of a tribe name begins that process in a very real way.
Like Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company, the characters in Hair are greatly – and intentionally – underwritten. Much of what is important about the characters is in the subtext, hidden below what feels like very casual, even trivial conversation. It’s the job of the actor and director to read between the lines, to discover the relationships, the loyalties, the tensions, the love, and the deep connections among the characters.
George Berger and Claude Bukowski (presumably named for Beat generation poet Charles Bukowski) form the center of the tribe and the show. Berger is a manic master of ceremonies and the leader of the tribe. He leads the tribe and the audience through the craziness of Act I, but in Act II he fades into the background to some extent as Claude’s story takes center stage. While Act I is Berger’s act as he introduces the tribe, their philosophy, and their way of life, Act II belongs to Claude, his drug trip, and his decision to go to war where he will die. Berger and Claude are two halves of one whole. Claude is the intellectual half, the introspective one, the voice of reason, morality, spirituality, guilt. He’s the one who tries to understand everything around him, including that which is not understandable – and that’s his downfall. He says several times in the show that he is "Aquarius, destined for greatness or madness," but in actuality, he is destined for both. His greatness is in forcing the tribe (through his death) to confront the evils of the world; his madness is his decision to become part of the machinery of war. If Claude is Aquarius (Jim Rado, one of the show’s authors, who played Claude on Broadway, was also an Aquarius), then this is Claude’s show, and the opening number is summoning him. Notice that the tribe’s final goodbyes to Claude are done while singing "Aquarius."
Berger, on the other hand, is the animal half, focused on instinct, courage, pleasure, primal urges. But those primal urges are not just for food, water, and sex – they are also to protect the tribe, to be its leader. Only together, do Berger (the id) and Claude (the superego) make one healthy person. (This is a common device in literature, most recently used in the novel and film The Fight Club, and also used in the late 1960s in "The Enemy Within," an episode of the original Star Trek series.)
With this in mind, it’s interesting that both Berger and Claude want Sheila, since they are two halves of a whole. Berger wants Sheila only for the physical pleasures of sex, nothing more; while Claude, wants her for the spiritual pleasures of pure love. Only together do they make the perfect lover. Sheila loves Berger but Berger’s only interest in her is physical. When she brings him the shirt in Act I, his reaction speaks volumes. He feels smothered by her. He doesn’t want gifts. He doesn’t want commitment and he doesn’t want the depth of feeling which he sees in Sheila. Like men have done for centuries, his reaction to the smothering love she gives him is to become a jerk, to treat her badly in order to get her to leave him alone. He explodes at her over nothing (and in an early version of the script, brutally rapes her), hoping that she’ll hate him, hoping that she’ll crawl away, licking her wounds, giving him at least temporary freedom. She tries to hang on, tries to laugh off his insults, but eventually, she lashes back with the song "Easy to be Hard." She doesn’t understand him. Each time they have sex, each kind word he says to her gives her hope that he really does love her, but he doesn’t understand that he’s sending these signals. To him, it’s just sex. To her, it’s love. In the earlier, off-Broadway script, Berger cares so little for Sheila (or at least, so much more for Claude), he even asks Sheila in Act II to sleep with Claude before he goes off to war.
What a Piece of Work is Claude
Some people see Claude as Hamlet, the melancholy hippie, prisoner of indecision. In fact, there are several Shakespeare references in the show. In the original off-Broadway script, Claude recites a speech from Hamlet to Berger after the trip, a speech in which Claude/Hamlet marvels at the nobility and great potential of mankind but confesses that he sees the world as nothing but a barren wasteland. Galt MacDermot later set this speech to music for Broadway, called it "What a Piece of Work is Man," and it was inserted into Claude’s trip, still serving basically the same purpose, but now sung by two other members of the tribe as part of Claude’s hallucination (so arguably still coming from Claude).
After the trip, as Berger and Claude are waking up, Berger says, "Face reality, Shakespeare." Is that just a coincidence or does Berger know Claude’s trip included a speech from Hamlet? Does Berger possess some kind of Shakespearean magical powers that allow him to see inside Claude’s mind? And if he can, was Berger manipulating Claude’s trip like a latter day Prospero to persuade him to decide not to go to Vietnam? "What a Piece of Work is Man" also serves as proof of how literate Claude is – if Hamlet shows up in his trip, Claude must be familiar with the play and its themes. And of course, by this logic, Claude has read Allen Ginsberg’s poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra" on which the other song in the trip, "Three-Five-Zero-Zero," is based. Further proof that many of the hippies were well-educated and well-read.
Finally, as Claude is killed and comes back to the tribe, now invisible as he always wished, he sings a reprise of "Manchester, England" as the tribe sings in counterpoint "Eyes Look You Last." This section ends with Hamlet’s last words before he dies, "The rest is silence." There’s another quote from Hamlet that precedes the song "Mess O’ Dirt," which was cut from the show.
And just as Hamlet was fascinated with plays and players, Claude is fascinated with film. In his Act I introduction song, "Manchester, England," he lists his heroes, the legendary film directors Frederico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Roman Polanski. In both the Broadway and off-Broadway scripts, a scene is included in which Claude even makes Sheila act out a scene from a screenplay Claude has been writing about the tribe, just as Hamlet writes a play about the murder of his father by his uncle. "The Flesh Failures," makes a reference to film as well.
Claude Hooper Bukowski Superstar
But while some people see Claude as Hamlet, others see him as a Christ figure, and there are even more references to Jesus Christ in Hair than there are to Hamlet. Several times throughout the show, Claude talks about wanting to be invisible, wanting to know what people are thinking, and wanting to perform miracles. Midway through Act I, Claude enters saying, "I am the Son of God. I shall vanish and be forgotten." Is this a comment on organized religion losing touch with God and forgetting the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings? Following this comment, Claude comes through the audience and the tribe "blessing" people as he goes. Later, he compares his hair to Jesus in the song "Hair." At one point, Jeanie says that "Claude is hung up on a cross over Sheila and Berger." After the trip he says he wants to he wants to hang on a cross and eat cornflakes. At the end of the show, when Claude returns to the tribe for the finale, he says, "Berger, I feel like I died." Like Christ, Claude has died and has returned, and like Christ, Claude is the Chosen One, the one member of the tribe chosen (literally, by the draft board) to give his life for the others. In the last moment of the show, Berger forms a cross over Claude as the final lights fade.
In addition to these very obvious moments, there are other less direct references. Like Christ, Claude is sent to his death by the government. Like Christ, Claude suffers through enormous confusion and conflict over what to do – Claude throughout Act I and specifically in "Where Do I Go," Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as Claude’s parents disapprove of him and his lifestyle, there is evidence in the Bible that Jesus’ mother and brothers thought he was out of his mind and an embarrassment to the family. And just as the second half of the Bible (the New Testament) focuses on Jesus Christ, the second half of Hair shifts its focus almost exclusively to Claude and the story of his death and (metaphorical) resurrection.
It’s important to remember that Jesus was not just the Son of God – he was a radical political activist in the same spirit as the political activists of the 1960s. He was the center of a great revisionist social movement which rejected the social and spiritual status quo, dozens of small messianic groups each thinking their leader was the messiah the Jews had been waiting for. As he preached, Jesus roamed the country, living a life of relative poverty, taking handouts of food and shelter from strangers, picking up supporters and adherents as he went, speaking on social and spiritual issues, challenging the authority of the government and the ruling classes, declaring that things must change. When the crowds grew too big to fit inside churches, Jesus began speaking outside in large open areas, and thousands would gather to listen to him and to commune with each other and nature, not unlike the Be-Ins of the 60s. The hippies’ trip the night before Claude goes off to his death in war could even be compared to the Last Supper.
Furthermore, if Claude is Jesus, then Berger is John the Baptist, and Jeanie is Mary Magdalene. Even Claude and Berger’s names, by accident or not, are similar to their Biblical counterparts – Claude and Christ, George Berger and John the Baptist. Berger’s first speech to the audience deals a lot with water, creating an arguable connection to John the Baptist. At one point, one of the tribe actually cites John the Baptist as his hero. In fact, the historical John the Baptist was a lot like Berger, wild, out of the mainstream, roaming the countryside, a strong and harsh critic of the government and of the church. Like the hippies of the 1960s, John the Baptist believed the church had lost touch with God, that he and his followers had to totally discard accepted mainstream religion in order to find God. John the Baptist wore camel skins and ate bugs and wild honey. He had wild, long hair and a long, unkempt beard. He was a first century hippie, vigorously rejecting the establishment and the moral and political status quo. Just as Claude is drawn to Berger, so was Jesus drawn to the radical revolutionary John the Baptist, a charismatic young man declaring philosophical war on the church, the government, and other adult institutions. And like the hippies, most of the followers of John the Baptist were very young.
And like Mary Magdalene and Jesus, Jeanie loves Claude, but he can’t return her love. Because Claude is the emotional and moral center of Hair, Jeanie is by extension the most important female character in the show, even though it might not appear that way at first glance. She acts as Greek chorus several times throughout the show, explaining things to the audience, identifying characters and relationships, but she also gets a solo introduction song in Act I ("Air") along with the other leads. It’s through her that we feel the tragedy and the anguish of those Claude will leave behind. There are cryptic references throughout the show that Jeanie may be psychic in some way (or at least some kind of hippie mystic), that she knows Claude will end up going to war, and that she may know that Claude will die in Vietnam.
It may even be that Jeanie is denying the fact that Claude is the father of her unborn child only to free him from any responsibility, since she knows he doesn’t really love her. It’s probable that they have slept together. Though there’s nothing in the text that says this explicitly, Jeanie and Claude allude to this in their conversation before the Be-In, and it’s certainly an interesting idea for the actors to explore. Though Claude is in love with Sheila, Jeanie is in love with Claude and, along with Berger, she will suffer the greatest loss when Claude dies. It’s hard not to see parallels to Mary Magdalene, and since the discovery of "new" lost gospels in 1945, there may even be romantic parallels. These new papyrus texts have holes and gaps in them but some scholars maintain that these texts describe a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Unsurprisingly, this is hotly contested among Biblical scholars.
Like Mary Magdalene, who was called both prostitute and saint, Jeanie provides a symbolic bridge between sexuality and spirituality, between the pleasures of the flesh and the cultivation of the soul. (Perhaps she should be the one to sing "Sodomy.") Jeanie is promiscuous, already pregnant when the show begins (by "some speed freak"), but she is also the one who invites the audience to the Be-In, an event of spiritual exploration and awakening. She brings Claude a book on astral projection, and as mentioned earlier, she seems to have mystical powers. But even beyond all that, Mary Magdalene would have been right at home with Berger and the tribe. She grew up in Magdala, a small fishing village that was a hotbed of rebel activity against the Roman Empire. She came from a well-to-do family just as many of the hippies came from upper middle class families. And, in fact, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute even though she was characterized as such for centuries, just as the hippies were often characterized as sexual deviants and hedonists. Some texts suggest that she did have a considerable sexual appetite and, because she was well off enough that she didn’t have to work, she may have practiced what the hippies of the 1960s called "free love." And for that she was considered a sinner by her contemporaries. Like the hippies, Mary Magdalene was an independent thinker who met Jesus, a radical political activist, and joined his movement, a movement dedicated to finding enlightenment, rejecting old social norms and rules, and discovering the answers to the great existential questions; the parallels to the tribe in Hair are obvious. After Christ’s crucifixion, and after Mary’s subsequent preaching and evangelism, she retired to a secluded wilderness where she lived out her remaining years. Some accounts say that each day she was carried up to the heavens by angels to listen to the music of the heavens, an experience probably akin to astral projection, a practice Jeanie is very interested in.
In the Name of the Father
LeRoi Jones, black social activist and writer, wrote in the 1960s, "God has been replaced, as he has all over the West, with respectability and air conditioning." And Hair reflects that view of American society in the 1960s. It exposes the dark underbelly of organized religion as it satirizes its hypocrisies. In the song "Donna," it’s unclear whether Berger is singing about looking for a girl named Donna or, in fact, looking for the Virgin Mary, the Madonna. The song starts with a slight variation of "once upon a time" and the last line of the song actually replaces the words "my Donna" with "Madonna." Could Berger be talking about the Madonna, the "sixteen-year-old" Virgin Mary? Could this song be about his search for true spirituality as symbolized by Mary, his inability to find that spirituality in the hypocrisy and institutionalization of organized religion? And could that "disfigured" spirituality be represented by the "tattooed" Donna? After all, the song catalogs all his attempts to find spirituality in India, in South America, and through psychedelic drugs in San Francisco. In the second part of the song when he calls Donna psychedelic, perhaps he’s telling us he found the Virgin Mary – and God – through psychedelic, mind-expanding drugs (which was the goal of the drug users, after all), and it was only through the drugs that he could "evolve" into a more spiritual being.
Just a few minutes after "Donna," the tribe performs the song "Sodomy," a mock religious hymn cataloguing sex acts that organized religion condemns: fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty, and masturbation. It satirizes religion’s preoccupation with sex, "unspeakable" acts that nonetheless fill the Bible (making it as R-rated as Hair itself), acts that continue to embarrass the modern day Catholic church. The audience flinches when pederasty is mentioned, but do we too easily forget that the sexual repression of the Catholic church drives too many priests to molest altar boys over and over still today? Before the song, Woof poses as a priest and says, "This is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And I am going to eat you. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen." In one short speech, he pokes fun at the solemnity of priests and religious rituals, the cannibalistic implications of communion, and the all too blatant exceptions to the Constitutional separation of church and state in America. He sings "Sodomy" skewering the sexual hypocrisy of organized religion, concluding with a reference to the Kama Sutra, an ancient text which celebrates sex rather than denigrating and trying to control it.
The song "Ain’t Got No" also makes two religious references. The song is a list of things the hippies "ain’t got" with responses shouted out by the tribe. When the soloist sings that he has no faith, the tribe shouts out "Catholic," suggesting that the Catholics have lost their faith, have lost touch with God in the morass of man-made ritual that defines the church (already satirized in "Sodomy"). At the end of the song, when the soloist sings that he has no God, the tribe shouts "Good." But we learn throughout the show the tribe is in fact very spiritual so this reference means only that it’s a good thing to lose God as defined by modern religions, a false God, a God loaded up with man’s baggage and distanced from real spirituality and faith. But Hair doesn’t limit itself to Christian spirituality. The mantra chanted before the song "Don’t Put it Down" ("om mane padme hum") is a scared Buddhist mantra to Avalokiteswara, the Buddhist Savior and Protector.
As evidence of the spiritual side of the hippie culture and of Hair (and despite, or perhaps because of, the show’s criticism of organized religion), the original Broadway cast celebrated its third anniversary in May 1971 by holding a very special mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, presided over by Gerome Ragni’s brother and other clergy. For the occasion, Galt MacDermot wrote a new Mass in F, and instead of hymns, he used songs from Hair, sung by the Broadway cast and several New York choirs. The mass was released on an album called Divine Hair/Mass in F.
Hippie Get Your Gun
So why does Claude choose to go to war? After so much pressure from the tribe to burn his draft card, after his terrifying hallucinations about agonizing death during the trip, why does he go to Vietnam? In a literary sense, he is destined to go. He’s the Chosen One, the one who will sacrifice himself for the others. But on a personal level, Ragni and Rado have painted a portrait of a very real, very complex person. From the very beginning of the show, we find out that Claude is searching for fulfillment, trying to find himself and his place in the world. In fact, that is why he has joined the hippies. In his first song, "Manchester, England," Claude says that he "dropped out," as hippie and drug guru Timothy Leary advocated, but that his life is still unfulfilling. He asks Timothy Leary directly in the song why this is, why his life should still feel so meaningless when he has followed Leary’s instructions. Like the title character in Pippin, Claude is on a quest to find the meaning of life, and like young men throughout the history of the world, Claude realizes that war may just be the thing that makes a man of him, that shows him who he really is. Although for Pippin war is just a comic sketch performed by a troupe of players, for Claude war is very real. He may find out who he is, but he may also get killed. After the trip, Claude realizes that although war scares him, nothing else in life has proved satisfying.
But here Hair breaks the rules again. Instead of finding his true self deep in the jungles of Vietnam, instead of experiencing revelations about himself, instead of gaining elusive wisdom about the nature of life, Claude is dropped into Vietnam and instantly killed by a North Vietnamese sniper. There is no romance here, no literary devices, no triumph for our hero. He just gets shot and dies in the jungle, running away, screaming like a frightened child. It reminds us that war is not like a John Wayne movie or a romance novel. War is death.
All There in Black and White
Hair challenges nearly everything we complacently accept as ordinary in life, all the things we just don’t think about. It shoves them in our face and demands that we look at them. Racism, obscenity, sexual repression, and other issues are all laid bare before us, rejecting the restrictions of "polite society."
Racism is the most American of all issues. It was an issue when the Declaration of Independence was written. It split the nation during the Civil War and again in the 1960s. In the song "Colored Spade" Hud lists every offensive, racist label and stereotype ever thrown at him, to show how horrible, how ridiculous, how offensive they are. He confronts the audience with words and phrases and stereotypes they may have actually used (or allowed others to use) and he claims them for his own. When we hear them all together, when we realize how many more labels there are for blacks than for whites, they become ridiculous. They lose their power.
In "Dead End," the black tribe members list signs we encounter every day – "Dead End," "Keep Out," "Don’t Walk," "No Standing," "Keep Off the Grass," and others. And the fact that these warnings are being sung by black men and women raises them to the level of metaphor. This is the world, black Americans face every day, in employment, in housing, in pay, in opportunity, and not just in 1968 but still today.
At the beginning of Act II, two songs, "Black Boys" and "White Boys" make a powerful statement without the audience even noticing. It’s surprising enough (especially in 1968) for women to objectify men the way men have been objectifying women for centuries, but it’s even more surprising to be doing it across race lines. Three white woman sing about how much they love black men, and then three black women sing about how much they love white men. The songs are funny, seemingly harmless entertainments. But there were states in the 1960s where inter-racial marriage was still illegal. It wasn’t until Star Trek in the late 60s that television saw its first inter-racial kiss. These two charming songs are more subversive than the audience realizes. And though, racism is far less prevalent today than it was in 1968, there are still comparatively few inter-racial couples in America and, except in the biggest cities, those that exist still turn heads when they walk down the street. We haven’t come as far as we’d like to think.
The trip makes some interesting commentary on race. When General Grant lines up his troops, not only are the genders reversed (women as Lincoln, Booth, Coolidge, Gable, etc.), but so is race in at least one case. A black woman plays Abraham Lincoln and a blond girl plays Lincoln’s shoeshine boy. Like the song "Colored Spade," "Abie Baby" is another politically incorrect comedy number, in which three black tribe members sing joyously about being freed by Lincoln, in a stereotypical Hollywood black dialect. While the singers continue in the background, the black female Abe Lincoln recites a contorted Gettysburg Address, peppered with modern black references.
Though it’s common today to practice color-blind casting – ignoring an actor’s race when considering him for a role – Hair forced this upon audiences, demanding that they think about the social roles separating the races, demanding that the audience sees these separations as arbitrary and ridiculous. It’s jarring to see a while girl shining shoes, but had it been a black man, we might not have even thought about it. It’s odd to hear a black woman recite the Gettysburg Address but there’s no reason why she shouldn’t. As she quite correctly points out, they are "all our forefathers." But most disturbing is that as startling as this must have been in 1968, it’s still more surprising today than it should be.
And Love Will Steer the Stars
It’s impossible to describe the experience of performing Hair to someone who hasn’t done it. I was highly skeptical of the many people who told me their lives were changed by working on this show. Until I worked on it. From the choosing of the tribe name to the overwhelming rush of emotion in the show’s finale, it is an experience unlike any other. Not only does it bond each member of the tribe to every other member (and this includes, actors, director, designers, musicians), but it bonds each tribe to all the other tribes around the world, past and present. It centers people, changes them, guides them toward balance in their lives, guides them back to paths in their lives they’ve forgotten or abandoned, guides them toward a deeper spirituality. Even the most cynical among us is transformed by Hair. It holds a mystical, primal power that is impossible to explain. Just as it is utterly unique in so many concrete ways, it is just as unique in all the unexplainable ways.
The script of the original off-Broadway version of Hair was published but is currently out of print. You may be able to find it in used book stores or on the web. Also out of print, but worth finding are two books about the show, Barbara Lee Horn’s The Age of Hair: Evolution and Impact of Broadway's First Rock Musical, and Lorrie Davis and Rachel Gallagher’s Letting Down My Hair. Davis was an original Broadway cast member and her book describes the entire process of the creation of the show. Vocal selections are commercially available, but the full score and the Broadway script are available only through Tams-Witmark who licenses performances.
There are many recordings of the score available on CD. The best is the original Broadway cast album, but the 1993 London revival cast album contains new music which has now been incorporated into the standard rental version. The original off-Broadway cast album (which is very different) and a recording of songs cut from the show called DisinHAIRited are both only on out-of-print LPs, but both are worth finding. There is also an active and invaluable e-mail discussion list about Hair on the internet that can be accessed at www.jabberwocky.com. This discussion list counts among its members dozens of actors, directors, and designers who have worked on Hair, as well as members of the original Broadway cast. Past posts are archived on the website. Members of the list helped me immeasurably in researching Hair both for the production I directed and for this chapter.
This chapter is an excerpt (expanded and revised) from the book Rebels with Applause: Broadway’s Ground Breaking Musicals by Scott Miller Heinemann Publishing, 2001). Miller is also the author of Deconstructing Harold Hill and From Assassins to West Side Story, as well as the novel In the Blood.