"Hell no, we won't go!"
I was an impressionable young child of about 11 the first time I saw Hair on Stage in the early 70s. Or was I 12? Can’t remember. Either way, the point is I was impressionable. And I was particularly impressed when an usher at the New Theatre in Oxford questioned my apparently liberal parents (although it never occurred to me at the time and still find it hard to think of them in such a way) as to the suitability of my school friend and myself to be seeing such a show. If you want to make a young school kid eager to witness what he is about to attend, then that is certainly the way to do it.
My trip to Oxford to see the show triggered something of a life-long obsession with the show which would rear its head every now and again as I'd dig out my Dad's scratchy old, original 12” LP featuring, amongst others, Paul Nicholas and – rather surprisingly hidden away in the band playing guitar if my memory serves correctly – Alex Harvey.
And so, for many years, I harboured a yearning to see the show once again and yet, at the same time, failed to notice a John Barrowman starring run of the show at the Old Vic in 1993 and a rather dubious sounding presentation at Gate Theatre, Notting Hill in 2005 that changed the show to make it about the Iraq war rather than Vietnam.
Actually, I'm rather glad I didn't know about that 2005 production. Because I would have probably gone to see it if I'd known about it. And it would have probably annoyed me. Yes, there is relevance in Hair to modern issues, but works best as period piece. I have no doubt about this - which is probably rather strange having not seen other versions. But the idea of a bunch short haired 21st century kids singing about Iraq fills me with the same feeling of wrongness that I felt watching the reshuffled 1979 film version. I mean, you wouldn't update Sound of Music to make it about The Falklands or have Miss Saigon about World War I would you? Or maybe some people would. I don't know. But I wouldn't. If I see Hair I want to see a bunch of hippies. That's why it's called Hair isn't it? Because they had, like, long hair and stuff?
Now, finally (for me) Hair is back. And, I'm glad to say, my yearning has been fulfilled. Because the new version at the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London is a proper version of Hair. A full on, barely (though slightly) altered version of the show that I saw back in nineteen-seventy-whatever. Plus, as an added bonus, it even features real Americans which – considering it is set in New York – must surely be seen as a positive.
Sure, nowadays there are several wigs on display – but any prejudice that may be felt towards this soon dissipates as we still get the feeling we are back in 1967 and part of a hippy love-in. Old hippies, 21st century youngsters and former 11 (or was it 12) year-old school kids all converge and all get totally absorbed in the love and vibrancy of it all. There’s also the added attraction of getting hugged and kissed by members of the cast as they flow into the audience plus, if you’re lucky enough to get front row seats, you might even get a foot shoved in your face or a small cameo as the mother of one of the main characters.
I’ve now seen it twice. In fact, I saw it twice before it even opened. Not sure how I managed that, but for some reason shows seem to open about 2 weeks after the first show, making me one of the privileged attendees at what were apparently “previews”. There is a great deal of audience participation in the show, with cast members regularly leaving the stage to interact with the paying public or hand out flowers or photo-copied invitations to attend a "be-in" that definitely reminded me of flyers that friends of mine used to knock up to advertise their pub discos.
Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness
The first time I went I sat in the upper circle, where (what with it being a bit difficult for those on stage to get to) we were treated to our own exclusive group of stage school type hippies, who appeared through the side doors to sing, dance and do the interacting thing every now and again. Which was rather strange. As far as I could tell they played no part whatsoever in the what was going on two auditoriums below, though I would assume that they did manage to get to the stage at the end when the audience was invited up on stage to join in with the rousing finale of "Let the Sun Shine In".
So, all these years later, does Hair still retain the capacity to shock? Well, yes it does. But the shocks come in different places now to where they probably did back in the sixties. Outrage at the nudity, swearing and simulated sexual acts is replaced by the shock of trying to figure out if the cast really are smoking indoors and their liberal use of the word “nigger” (a word that has become so taboo in modern society that I even wondered if I should use it here or replace it with that dreaded term – the “N” word”).
The issues surrounding the characters are both trivial and monumental. We can be part relieved and partly disappointed to discover that the now iconic teenagers of the sixties (albeit the oldest bunch of teenagers I've seen since the final series of Please Sir) were, in reality, not so different from the kids of today. Naïve teenagers who lived with their parents and could be prone to throwing what have become known as hissy fits over such things as bright yellow shirts not quite fitting in with the hippy image they are trying to convey. Yet there is also real power in witnessing the cast banging the stage in a desperate and futile “yip-out” to attempt to prevent their mate Claude being carted off into the army.
What I love about Hair is that it is a proper show. It was entirely written for the stage rather than being a rehash of some movie or a former top band’s discography revamped into a West End show. It is now, more than 40 years since its opening, old enough to be a historic period piece, but also recent enough to be nostalgic to some members of the audience. It is, for me at least, one of the best ways I have found to pass an evening when I find myself working up in London.
This show has the potential to really catch on, and possibly become a “dress-up” night in much the same way as The Rocky Horror Show has in the past. It would certainly be fun to see the theatre going masses dressed up in hippy garb of an evening – and early signs are that there is already a degree of this happening.
There one thing that has always puzzled me though. On my dear old Dad’s LP was a song called “The Bed”. Clearly this song was seen as one of the highlights and worth including on an album that only contained about half of the songs from the show, yet when I saw the show many years ago the song was not performed. Neither is it in the show now. It wasn’t in the 1979 film version either. But then, a lot of stuff was cut from that anyway. Early pictures show the cast cavorting with a giant phallus while performing it but it would appear to have been cut many years ago while the original run was still in progress. I’ve often wondered what ever happened to “The Bed”.