The Musical Theater Lover’s Corner: “Hair” and the Next American Masterpiece

Harmony in 1968.

The run of Hair at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park had its final performance last night, and I was there. The show has been well received by audiences and critics alike, and if the thousands of ticket hopefuls who lined up, like me, at the edge of Central Park in the 5am Sunday morning darkness with blankets and pillows are any indication, the show can still put butts in seats 40 years after its historic original run on Broadway. As the show moves from Central Park to the Great White Way, where it will most likely prove it can woo audiences despite hundred dollar ticket prices (the Public’s production was free) and competing juggernauts like Shrek: The Musical (the promising tag line for which is “Bringing Ugly Back”), one has to wonder: why haven’t our generation’s stoners saved the American Musical?

Along with jazz music, The American Musical Theater is one of this nation’s proudest indigenous artistic traditions. The “Follies,” vaudeville and traveling variety shows, began as lucrative, if disjointed, showcases of individual talent, but soon those revues turned into lightly comic operettas, and the operettas blossomed into the great narrative masterpieces of the mid-twentieth century. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein boldly confronted the American racial dystopia with Show Boat; Rogers and Hammerstein sang a love song to the American prairie with Oklahoma; West

A young Stephen Sondheim.

The young Stephen Sondheim.

Side Story adapted Romeo and Juliet to spin a musical tale of urban sectarian violence in New York – it also unleashed the thunder of a young Steven Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s epic score, which was set to iconic movement by choreographer Jerome Robbins. Reread that last part. American motherf’ing heroes everywhere you turn.

Hair isn’t a narrative masterpiece. It’s essentially a musical review about hippies by hippies. You do the math. The dialogue is thin, the characters are repetitive, and the first act is really long. But it’s still awesome. Real awesome. That’s because it courses with the energy and zaniness of complete honesty, and because it takes advantage of the obvious truth that 30 people singing at the top of their lungs in perfect harmony is completely impossible to resist. At the end of act one, I couldn’t remember the characters’ names or what exactly was happening to each of them in the story, but there the cast was, standing nude before the audience crying “FREEDOM!” and I couldn’t have stopped the tears if I wanted. That one moment delivered the show’s themes – the youths’ yearning escapism, the mystical and unutterable beauty of love, the obliterating fear of a nation at war – at a visceral emotional pitch, without even needing much of a story. Incidentally, it’s time for all of us to start thinking about joining a community choir.

Right now, musical theater is starting to come into its own again, or at least the signs are good. In the Heights, a diasporic musical about Dominicans on Manhattan’s upper west side, stormed Broadway using Latin hip hop cultural cues and reggaeton beats to update the form. Once, a movie-musical, won a bevy of awards and gave thousands of young dreamers a formula for love via busted guitar and shitty keyboard. Almost every television show has a couple of musical theater jokes per season, and those are becoming less and less ironic every week as kids who grew up on Les Mis and Rent start to write the primetime lineups.

And yet there are still so many clunkers on Broadway. Go to TKTS and you’ll find yourself having to choose between Hairspray and Hairspray every f’ing time. I mean, the 50s were fun and Travolta makes an intriguingly disturbing woman, but enough already. It’s time for some new blood to step in the game and change it. In 1967, Hair opened off-Broadway with a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, each of them pretty much your run of the mill stoner.

But what about all these promising acts being produced at stuffy theater centers and elite rep companies, you might ask? And what Sufjan Stevens’ audacious audio-visual project, BQE? What about Duncan Sheik and Spring Awakening? No, no. These are all nice enough, but it’s not enough for kids with MFA grad degrees to keep making everything. It’s not enough for established indie cats to roll up and start piddling around in the music theater game, as if for a change of pace. It smells a little too much like a vanity project, or boredom. It’s not raw enough for the motherf’ing American Musical Theater.

No, we need losers to write the knock-your-sox-off musical extravaganza of the new millennium. A misfit gay wailing tenor who can’t even book a Disney cruise because he can’t seem to keep the weight on despite the protein supplements, which give him bad breath and acne anyway. The song writer who’s still trying to master triple-tracking on Garageband, who’s got some gems but can’t quite get his image right for the A&R assholes. The fat dancer who casting directors and agents keep prodding to shed the lbs but can’t seem to keep away from the happy hour snack menu at Uno’s. Hidden gems, full of passion, just waiting, trembling, to burst onto the scene. Those are the people who need to step up. THAT’s how you put on a show. If you’re reading this, stoners and losers, please hit that shit and start scribbling, cuz it’s up to you.

James, Gerome, and Galt got their shit together in ’67 and delivered Hair. Let’s find Mrs. Robinson, let’s find Joe DiMaggio. God bless you please, stoners and losers! Let us find the great American Musical once again!

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3 Responses to The Musical Theater Lover’s Corner: “Hair” and the Next American Masterpiece

  1. I mean, I’m all about stoners and losers, but I think the primary factor that can keep musical theater progressive and relevant as an art form is not a penchant for underachieving but, rather, a simultaneous acknowledgment of the absurdity of the genre combined with a deep love and appreciation for its beauty and majesty. that’s why pieces like [title of show] and the slightly older bat boy have been such refreshing departures from traditional musical theater fare- they willingly admit that bursting into song and dance while attempting to tell a story is a ridiculous narrative device, but enthusiastically celebrate it in spite of themselves. the next generation of musical theater has to stem from a group of artists who treat the art form with both whimsy AND reverence, and if these people happen to be stoners and losers, more power to ’em, baby.

  2. […] about current events, politics and world issues, you might be saying to yourself.  What about the lovers, stoners, hippies and burnouts who were to revitalize the form and kindle a renaissance of the American orchestra pit?  Well, […]

  3. […] seminal musical theater nudity moment happened back at the Public in 1968 when “Hair” first exploded onto the downtown scene with its message of peace, love, and unruly pubes.   It was indeed shocking, but not just because […]

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