Forty years on, age of Aquarius still dawning 

BY Scott Harrah

Hippie take on youth, war, drugs remains relevant

“Hair” truly changed the American musical in so many ways.  First produced on Broadway in 1968, it was the ebullient voice of the hippie and flower child generation, and its anti-war message and in-your-face countercultural zeal made all the classic musicals that preceded it seem irrelevant and anachronistic. This outstanding revival — which had a successful run in Central Park last summer — doesn’t seem dated at all because America is still a country involved in a pointless war. 

Director Diane Paulus has made this production a true crowd-pleaser. It’s energetic, colorful and upbeat enough to entertain people of all generations. Nearly everyone knows the score of “Hair” because it’s now part of America’s pop-cultural sensibility. Regardless of what decade you grew up in, you may find yourself singing along to the show’s infectious songs like “Age of Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In” and “Good Morning Starshine.”  These anthems may have seemed “hippie-dippy” in 1968, but today they are as recognizable worldwide as anything written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

“Hair” is essentially a musical revue with a paper-thin plot about a group of hippies resisting the Vietnam War.  Led by the handsome, longhaired Berger (the marvelous Will Swenson), the “tribe” burn draft cards, drop out of school, drop acid and indulge in free love.  Amazingly, “Hair” celebrated both heterosexual freedom and homosexuality a year before Stonewall and the birth of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Bryce Ryness is wonderfully androgynous and fey as Woof, a guy who idolizes and lusts after Mick Jagger.  Andrew Kober is hilarious as a “housewife.” The infamous scene showing the entire cast nude onstage at the end of act one adds to the psychedelic merriment, but it’s done in a tasteful way. 

Paulus allows the individuality of each character to shine, while still managing to make the 32-member cast work together as a free-spirited, multitalented unit. She brings the fun into the aisles at various points in the show, when cast members run into the audience and greet people, sing, and stand on top of seats. For the finale, audience members are invited onstage to dance at a “Be-In” and sing along to “Let the Sunshine In.” Such gleeful moments of audience participation make “Hair” a bona-fide party. 

Despite all the revelry, however, “Hair” isn’t merely about sex, drugs and rock and roll — and that’s why it’s still relevant 41 years later. Gavin Creel gives a first-rate, emotionally exhausting performance as Claude, a hippie who’s torn between dodging the draft or obeying his parents’ wish to fight in Vietnam.  The hippies eventually give up on groovy hedonism as they “come down” from their drug highs, face the reality of America at war, and their friend Claude’s difficult decision. Claude could be any modern-day man forced by parental pressure or economic conditions to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. His fate makes “Hair” brilliantly sobering and topical.