Hair @ Gielgud Theatre, London

cast list
Sasha Allen, Will Swenson, Luther Creek, Darius Nichols, Gavin Creel, Caissie Levy, Kacie Sheik, Allison Case, Megan Lawrence, Andrew Kober, Kevin Kern, Phyre Hawkins

directed by
Diane Paulus
When Milos Forman’s film of Hair hit cinema screens in 1979, the Vietnam War had been over for four years, flower power had long since wilted and it looked like a dead duck.

Its time was past and, while the score stood up, the subject matter was just too specific to its era.

Now, after more than 40 years, and a long period in the wilderness (despite several weak revivals), the work has achieved the status of “period piece,” and is ripe for re-assessment.

Transferred lock, stock and piping barrel from Broadway, what Diane Paulus’ production wisely does is keep the show completely in its time. Although we have our own Vietnam now, with young Americans again coming home in body bags (and it’s all closer to home in the UK this time), she gives us 1967 straight and leaves us to draw our own parallels.

It may be difficult for younger generations to appreciate the impact Hair had when it erupted onto the London stage in 1968, a year after its Broadway premiere. It was delayed until the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s office but it wasn’t just the unprecedented nudity and swearing that shocked.

The naked display of hippy ideals was an affront to conservative values, as was the resistance to conformity of any kind, which included a violation of traditional theatrical forms. Owing something to the work being done by theatre groups such as Julian Beck’s Living Theatre, it showed a lack of dramatic convention in the plotting.

It’s some time before any semblance of story emerges from the mayhem of youthful celebration. The second act trip (yes, in that sense) through American history and personal anguish is cocky, nose-snubbing wackiness but it still entertains enormously.

What the passage of time allows us to do is assess whether the music is actually any good. Composer Galt MacDermott gives us not one or two tunes strung out endlessly, like many a contemporary musical, but short bursts that never outstay their welcome. The fact that they keep coming, one tremendous song after another, is testament to the score’s inventiveness and variety.

It’s not all upbeat energy, although there’s plenty of that. Plaintive ballads, such as Sheila’s “Easy to Be Hard,” and the later “What a Piece of Work is Man,” culled from Hamlet, vary the tone. It’s a very good score and a tonic to anyone who’s grown up with the anodyne conservatism that marks most modern musical theatre.

The American cast, a true ensemble, give it their all. The singing is terrific and the excellent band spills off a truck upstage, just as the singers frequently pour into the auditorium to hug and stroke the audience and dance on the backs of seats. For the finale this is reversed and we are invited onto the stage for a huge party that transcends the sombre ending.

Amplification smudges the subtlety of lyrics and tunes at times but this is a great show. It can’t ever re-capture its original impetus but can give us a taste of those times; a history lesson in more ways than one.

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