MacDermot's tunes, sunny and lilting or tough and propulsive, are what lift the predominantly laundry-list words handed him by lyricists-librettists Gerome Ragni and James Rado for this "tribal-love rock musical." It's obvious that Ragni and Rado had a lot of fun stringing items together for "Ain't Got No," "I Got Life," "Hashish," "Sodomy," "Black Boys," "White Boys," and the completely irresistible title song. In the plangent "Easy to Be Hard," the pair tapped into some core truth about the discrepancy between social and personal consciences. And they showed great humor when they chose to transform a verbatim outburst they supposedly overheard (or read) into "Frank Mills," the best unrhymed song ever written. But while they can claim responsibility for the score's classy chassis, it was MacDermot who provided the motor.
The fuel, of course, comes from the singers. This has never been a problem for Hair, because talented kids with hearty voices and hale bodies come along in droves with every generation. They were there when the original Hair was cast, as had been when the likes of Good News, Babes in Arms, and Best Foot Forward came along. And it was obvious in 1967, as it is in 2001, that Hair was simply the latest version of the kids-on-campus musical that had always been good for a commercial run. (When Rent opened in 1997, it was just as obvious that it was a Hair re-tread with only the stakes changed. In Hair the outraged youngsters sincerely protest a war; in Rent, they self-indulgently question why so-called artists should be expected to pay to keep a roof over their heads.)
What was also as plain as the nose on Lyndon Baines Johnson's face when Hair bowed was that its book wasn't terribly good. As satire, it was about as buoyant as a burst balloon. That dreary book choppily follows five drop-outs: Claude (Luther Creek in this production), Berger (Tom Plotkin), Sheila (Idina Menzel), Woof (Kevin Cahoon), and Jeanie (Miriam Shor)--as they struggle through the few weeks between the day Claude, who's trying to pass himself off as English, receives his draft notice and the day he decides, after first protesting the Vietnam war, to enlist. Hammering their manuscript together, Ragni and Rado (who were old enough to know better) championed the pot-smoking, acid-ingesting kids and crucified the older generation as represented by Claude's numb-nut parents. (Haranguing, thick-headed adults much like the Hair targets show up in Rent, where they're also played by young actors in Robert Hall-like ensembles.)
The original script for Hair was so deficient that, by the time previews of the downtown production ended, much of it had been trimmed away by director Gerald Freedman. Tom O'Horgan, hot as a cannon in those days, snipped even more away when he was brought in to oversee the show's move uptown. By the time he was through cutting, ahem, Hair, it was virtually a revue. And it was in that form that the work caught the spirit of a turbulent decade so well, it immediately became time-capsule material. (Recordings by The Fifth Dimension and The Cowsills, released some time after the how opened, helped immeasurably.) Some of Hair's limp jokes remain--one of which goes something like, "Why call it high school; people might think we're high"--but, fortunately, not in such profusion that they ruin the fun.
The show's bold strengths and blatant weaknesses are fully on display in the Encores! presentation, which is a crowd-pleaser while oddly missing much of what made the 1967 and 1968 productions memorable. Times, of course, have changed, and the show's angry, fervent, anti-war message can't be expected to have as much meaning when tourists are once again traveling to Vietnam to coo over the beautiful countryside.
But there's more to it than that. Kathleen Marshall, who directed and choreographed the Encores! production, has made a few odd decisions. The most noticeable is her apparently choosing not to have the men in the cast wear down-the-back hair. Claude's mane, which here is no longer than the average male audience member's, was a plot point in the original Hair; when it was chopped off, which it isn't here, an important statement was made about crippling an entire generation of young men. Marshall, assisted by Joey Pizzi, has also slicked up the show's choreography. In the 1960s version, the cast lacked the discipline needed for precision dancing (many of them were crashing at the theater most nights), and that was its own point. Now that point is lost amid numbers that come off as Hair Goes Vegas. (Marshall, whose work for the Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate is nothing short of spectacular, has taken a few steps backward this year with this assignment and with Follies; maybe she's overworked.)
The director-choreographer lets her two-dozen-strong cast loose on a curiously inappropriate set, a superstructure of iron pipes that reads like a cross between scaffolding and a jungle gym. Its metallic hardness is at odds with the let's-frolic-in-the-great-outdoors period it's meant to represent. Truth is, it's reminiscent of the Rent catwalks--but where's the benefit in imitating an imitator? John Lee Beatty, scenic consultant for the Encores! series, may have misguidedly thrown in his two cents of approval. Martin Pakledinaz, billed as the costume consultant, may have also okayed the show's off-kilter look. A good guess is that his job was simply to approve ersatz-hippie clothes brought in by the actors from their own closets; that could explain why tie-dye, beads and scarves hardly predominate. (For those who care, there is no nudity in this production.) One outfit is an unintentional hoot: After Claude has enlisted, he appears wearing corporal's stripes. Say, what goes on in this man's Army?
The cast, as anyone might guess, is delightful. With the exception of the usually entertaining Tom Plotkin (who makes the brash Berger actively unlikable) and Kevin Cahoon (thinly unappealing), they look as if they're thrilled to have a chance to show how good they are. Luther Creek is even able to give Claude an inner life. Idina Menzel's "Easy to Be Hard" is a knockout, and Jessica-Snow Wilson's "Frank Mills" is charming. Brandi Chavonne Massey adds immensely to the wall of sound with her steely voice. When the cast sings in unison, they're a marvelous "Hallelujah" chorus. That's when the sun truly shines in.