I did something yesterday afternoon with my mother-in-law and my daughter that involved sex, drugs, and full frontal nudity. Oh, get your finger off the Child Protective Services speed dial. We’re not part of some perverted cult, we simply went to see a revival of the musical “Hair.” Betsy is on the Performing Arts Board of Cal State Northridge in the Valley and the students there put on a rousing production of the play this weekend. They didn’t cut a thing from the original Broadway show including the notorious nude scene. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I were the parent of a college student in that show but in the context of the play the scene was pretty harmless.
I was exactly Leah’s age when I first saw “Hair” in 1970. It was at the now defunct Mill Run Theatre in Niles, Illinois, which was a revolving “theatre-in-the-round,” a very popular concept in the 60s and 70s that must have driven directors and set designers nuts. I remember seeing lots of shows there, from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dionne Warwick to “Fiddler on the Roof” and a production of “No Hard Feelings,” the play my dad’s friend Sam Bobrick wrote that was based on my parents’ divorce. I wish I could find the program for that touring production of “Hair” so I could see which future stars were in the cast. To be honest, the only thing I remember about the play was the nude scene! Unlike yesterday’s version, with subdued lighting and the naked cast members walking off into the wings, the cast on the circular stage at the Mill Run had no choice but to walk right past us down the aisles of the theatre.
Despite my superficial longing to be a hippie in the late 60s and early 70s, I was entirely too young and naïve to really “get” what the play was about back then. When the movie version came out in 1979 I was going to college in Paris and I forced my friends to see it at least half a dozen times over the course of the year. But even though I was now the right age, I viewed the film as a nostalgic artifact of a bygone era, not a rallying cry for my generation. The stars of the film, Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo, and John Savage, were all in their late 20s or early 30s and I didn’t relate to them as peers. When I returned to Northwestern University in 1980 for my senior year, it couldn’t have felt less like the era of Be-Ins and Expanded Consciousness. Northwestern seemed to be as firmly a part of the Establishment as you could get and we were all being groomed for the ill-fated Reagan Revolution that would take root that fall. So much for the Age of Aquarius.
I remember visiting New York during my senior year and seeing a production of the acclaimed and now mostly forgotten Elizabeth Swados musical “Runaways” starring a bunch of young actors (including Diane Lane and several future stars of the TV show “Fame”). The creators of “Hair” had recently attempted a tenth anniversary production of their landmark musical and it had been an enormous flop—the country just was not in the mood. The rebellious kids in “Runaways” sang a changing of the guard song that included lyrics such as “Where are those people who did ‘Hair?’ How did they get so fat and ugly?” and then went on to make fun of the counterculture love fest. Welcome to the 1980s.
But here, in 2006, with the endless war in Iraq and an administration intent on lying about it, I was surprised at how much the play once again resonates. The Cal State students did a superb job of capturing the free-spirit era and they gamely interacted with a matinee audience that was not exactly counterculture. I don’t know what was going on, but the average age of the audience members seemed to be around 70. I saw several people making their way down the aisles with their walkers and there was a large group of those senior ladies who dress in purple and wear red hats. I don’t mean to sound ageist, I applaud the older theatre-going crowd—it’s just that you could feel the tension in the room slice like a knife during some of the play's risqué references including the songs that I pray Leah is not singing in her fifth-grade class today. The row in front of me visibly shifted in their seats as Berger sang the following lament at the beginning of the show:
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Can be fun
Join the holy orgy
Repeat after me: “Oy!” Oh well, at least those lyrics will send the search engines racing to my site. It’s easy to see why “Hair” was so revolutionary on the stodgy Broadway stage in the 60s. The show ran for over 4 years at the Biltmore Theatre and originally starred its writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado as Berger and Claude. Over the next five years the show became a worldwide phenomenon. James Rado tells a great story about the opening night in London at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Zsa Zsa Gabor was in the audience and came up onto the stage after the show to be interviewed for a TV broadcast. Referring to what she had just seen, she stated, “This is not acting!” Executive Producer Bertrand Castelli cried out from the wings, “What do you know about acting?” He came out and they got into a fight right in front of the audience. Zsa Zsa stormed off in a huff and fell down the center steps on her way off the stage. She was caught by several members of the “Tribe” who lifted her up into the air and carried her up the aisle and out the door, chanting, “We love you Zsa Zsa!” Doesn’t that say it all?
Sometimes when I think about the 60s I mistakenly group all the movements together. One thing that was clear to me yesterday is that it took a while longer for the women’s movement to make headway in this country. Despite the peace-oriented rhetoric, this is anything but a feminist play. The women in the show are almost always subordinate to the men and there are parts of the play that are fairly misogynistic. Not that there weren’t strong female performances. The original Broadway cast featured a very young Diane Keaton whose Playbill bio was typically unconventional:
Diane Keaton: Born January 5, 1946 in Santa Ana, California. Neighborhood Playhouse Graduate...U.S.O. Tour of Orient. Hobbies? Going to the movies, eating! taking walks, being alive. Why I am what I am? Ask my friends. They would like nothing better than to rap on me! Man, how could I answer that? My God, that's impossible. I am human being number 927-4610-887. How could I presume to...well...you know...right.
I met a boy called Frank Mills
On September twelfth right here
In front of the Waverly
I lost his address.
During the run of the show, Plimpton met an actor named Keith Carradine who took over the part of Woof from Steve Curry (one of the original newsboys in “Gypsy” and later Baby John in “West Side Story”). In the true spirit of “Hair,” Plimpton and Carradine conceived a baby while they appeared in the play although they never married. This Love Child turned out to be none other than the brilliant actress Martha Plimpton, who instigated our recent theatre trip to New York. We met Martha a few months ago because she’s dating our friend Fred Armisen and when we heard she was opening in a new play on Broadway we booked our tickets immediately.
I never did provide any follow-up about our New York jaunt. The death of my former colleague, editor Lisa Barnett, threw me for a loop last week. Incidentally, one of Lisa’s Heinemann books that I loved the most was the definitive tome about the musical “Hair” called “Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR” by Scott Miller. I remember telling Lisa how much I envied the fact that she got to work on such cool manuscripts. It sure as hell beat books on phonemic awareness!
I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for the answers to my NY Theatre Quiz. No? Well, Betsy told me yesterday that she couldn’t figure out all the answers so here they are.
The plays we saw were 1) “Sweeney Todd,” 2) “Awake and Sing,” 3) “The History Boys,” and 4) “Landscape of the Body.” The playwright who was married to the woman who won the Best Actress Oscar two years in a row was Clifford Odets whose first wife was Luise Rainer. The two “Six Feet Under” actresses were Lauren Ambrose (“Awake and Sing”) and Lili Taylor (“Landscape of the Body”). The play that was one of my all-time best theatrical experiences was the revival of “Awake and Sing,” playing at the very same theatre where it premiered in 1935. We were sitting in the first row and felt like we were part of the tortured Berger family. Lauren Ambrose was a revelation as daughter Hennie, Zoe Wanamaker took my breath away as mother Bessie, and Ben Gazzara was heartbreaking as grandfather Jacob. It’s rare to see a cast this good—Mark Ruffalo nailed the part of Moe Axelrod, Ned Eisenberg was a pitch-perfect Uncle Manny, and Pablo Schreiber was perfectly cast as the son Ralph, desperate to break free from the miseries of family life during the Depression. There is a lot of 30s jargon in this play and without a top-notch cast the lines could start to sound like a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But this cast never missed a beat and if I could I would fly back to New York tonight to see it again. It’s that good, and just as revolutionary and controversial as “Hair” was in its day.
I won’t drone on about the rest of the plays except to say that the deconstructed “Sweeney Todd” with the cast playing the entire score from the stage is really worth seeing (and probably the last time you’ll get to see Patti LuPone playing the tuba).
On our last day in New York we saw “Faith Healer” starring a stellar trio of actors: Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones, and Ian McDarmid (the evil Emperor Palpatine in all of the “Star Wars” movies). They were incredible, and it was a very challenging play. The actors never appear on stage together until the curtain call, but deliver three very long tour-de-force monologues. Our final play of the trip was Martha Plimpton’s “Shining City” co-starring Oliver Platt and Brian O’Bourne. We loved Martha who had a pivotal but frustratingly short role but we thought the play might have worked better in a smaller theatre, not the Biltmore. But maybe it was the perfect venue: that’s where “Hair” enjoyed its four-year run. You could almost say that Martha Plimpton was conceived on that stage!
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation