For those who became adults in the 60s and 70s, Hair is a musical icon, and for those who have grown up since, it is the stuff of legend.
Epitomising one young generation’s challenge against an older, puritanical authority that would have them fight a war they didn’t believe in, Hair is a cry for freedom and everything that comes with it: the right to free love, sexual liberty, drugs, racial equality and protest. In short, the right to do whatever you damn well please.
The characters in Hair, members of the New York hippie community, do all this and more. There is a song about sodomy, a long sequence conjuring a drug trip, lots of simulated sex and a flash of nakedness. Clearly, in 1967, shown in a mainstream theatre to a Broadway audience unused to such an assault on the eyes and ears, this pageant of hippie culture would have been shocking and groundbreaking; likewise a year later when the musical premiered in London in all its glory, the Lord Chamberlain’s censor having just been abolished.
But now it is 2010, and while Hair remains of its era, audiences have moved on and its racy themes no longer have the power to shock. Instead, the freedoms that are celebrated so thoroughly now seem faintly selfish. Free love creates a love triangle in which somebody is going to get hurt; a pregnant woman is left pining for a man who doesn’t want her; and tribe leader Berger (Will Swenson) seems little more than a lazy lothario who has no regard for the feelings of the woman who loves him.
Amid the passionately-performed songs honouring hippie life there is a plot centring on Claude (Gavin Creel), a young American who has been drafted into the Vietnam War. While his hippie friends challenge him to burn his call-up papers, Claude is caught in a maelstrom of feelings, struggling to choose his path in life. Though war sadly remains a feature of 2010, the panic and passion surrounding the Vietnam war draft seem a long time ago, despite the undoubted poignancy of Claude’s story.
The ensemble cast of this Broadway production put all their considerable talent and verve into the show, and much of Galt MacDermot’s score – especially the familiar songs Aquarius and Let The Sun Shine In – is joyfully rousing. But when the members of the audience take to the stage at the end of the show to help the hippies champion their freedoms, it seems less a demonstration of kinship and more a chance to grab a slice of West End fame.