WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS HAIR By Peter Filichia
As we celebrate Independence Day, let’s cite a musical that mentions the famous date albeit in one of Broadway’s most anti-government shows.
But there it is in “Going Down” in Hair: “Forgive me if I don’t cry; it’s like the Fourth of July.”
The context? Teenager Berger feels that this is his personal Independence Day because he’s been expelled from high school.
Never mind that Berger was played by Gerome Ragni — also the show’s co-librettist and co-lyricist — who was already thirty-two when Hair opened nearly fifty years ago.
Surprised it’s been that long? Figures don’t lie: Hair opened off-Broadway on Oct. 29, 1967 and in the process inaugurated the Public Theatre, which, a half-century later, is still glowing, crowing and going strong.
Both longtime Broadway observers and those who are currently frequenting the Shubert Theatre will notice that the final six words of that sentence come from the title song of Hello, Dolly! — a musical with which Hair has nothing in common – even in this milder, more-folk-rock version that started off-Broadway.
The girl gets the guy in Dolly; the army gets the guy in Hair. Vandergelder and Dolly may live happily ever after; Claude – played on Broadway by Ragni’s co-librettist and co-lyricist James Rado — won’t live at all, but will die in Vietnam.
The laissez-faire attitude Claude took toward the military draft would cost him his life. Were Ragni and Rado saying that hippies were too much concerned with fun and weren’t focused enough to deal with the important issues that would impact their lives? The Hair “tribe” did protest against the war and the president, yes, but most of the time they centered on sex (“White Boys,” “Black Boys”), drugs (“Hashish”) and rock ‘n’ roll, thanks to Galt MacDermot’s extraordinary music.
What success the songs had! The cast of the Broadway production (which moved uptown six months later) recorded a much more raw cast album that reached number one, stayed there for thirteen weeks and remained on the charts for forty-six more. Pop recordings of “Hair,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine” all received gold records by individuals or groups that are now long-forgotten. But Hair is still getting productions and four of its albums remain in print.
Today, the Baby Boomer characters in Hair are senior citizens. If Claude were still alive today, he’d still be interested in LSD, but not the lysergic acid diethylamide that had him take trips without benefit of transportation. Claude, the Anglophile who claimed to hail from “Manchester, England” would be interested in LSD in the British sense; across the pond, those three letters are a popular synonym for money.
Indeed, for all the hippies’ talk of “peace, love, freedom,” even back then Claude did blatantly state “I just want to have lots of money.” Had he lived, he might well have pursued it with the fervor that so many former hippies did.
That’s not the only change time has wrought since 1967. In “Ain’t Got No,” the Baby Boomers proudly proclaimed “I got my teeth” but now some do and some don’t. Many who once adored their “long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, knotted, polka-dotted, twisted, beaded, braided, powdered, flowered and confettied, bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghetti’d” hair found that Avenue Q got it right: “Your hair is only for now.” (Rado, in fact, has been bald for decades.)
More to the point, today another image may come to mind when Sheila comments on Berger’s insensitivity, saying that he finds it “easy to be hard” – which Berger might not at all find easy today.
When Crissy says that she met Frank Mills “in front of the Waverly,” she’s referring to a theater on Sixth Avenue at West 3rd Street that’s now called the IFC Center. Timothy Leary (mentioned in “Manchester, England”) and the Grateful Dead (cited in the title song) are no longer with us. The cult celebrated in “Hare Krishna” is still around, but is not doing as well as Hell’s Angels, the motorcycle club referenced in “Frank Mills” that’s now in its seventieth year.
“Frank Mills” has Crissy identify George Harrison as one “of the Beatles.” Did anyone in late 1967 need those three words? This group had enjoyed almost four years of titanic fame; even octogenarians could name all of the group’s four members. Even today, people who were decades away from being born know Harrison was a Beatle.
But they may not know “LBJ” who is mentioned “Initials.” Those of you from Generation X and beyond: “LBJ” was Lyndon Baines Johnson, then the (unpopular) president of the United States. The song said that “LBJ took the IRT” involves another faded reference. The subway line known as the IRT — The Interborough Rapid Transit – is now more chummily known as “the 1, 2 and 3 trains.”
The song “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” may also confuse contemporary listeners. It refers to the military’s assertion that Americans were killing that many Viet Cong soldiers each month.
And yet, there’s a funny exception to all these dated lines. Many back then felt that Ragni and Rado were guilty of Wordplay of Convenience when writing “They’ll be gaga at the go-go.” It sounds nice and euphonic, but hippies wouldn’t have used the word “gaga,” for it was a synonym for “wild enthusiasm” that had been coined by the previous generation – a group that the hippies scorned. But everything old is new again, and in the last few years a certain Lady has brought the word back into vogue. So Millennials listening to Hair’s title song won’t be jarred by “gaga” as some Boomers were back then.
In the title song, Claude states “I’m hairy, noon and night.” But in the morning, no? Of course he’s hairy then, too, so why make this statement? When I first heard the lyric, I wondered if it were a reference to Ronald Ribman’s 1965 play Harry, Noon and Night.
Lo and behold, in 1977, as I came up the aisle of the Biltmore after just having witnessed a performance of the first Hair revival, I spotted Ragni standing at the back of the house. I asked him if he’d purposely referenced that play. “Yes!” he joyously exclaimed. “You’re the first person to ask me that, but that’s exactly what I meant. Harry, Noon and Night was a play I was cast in but then I took another job instead. Writing the lyric was my way of kinda making it up to Ronald.”
Two references haven’t dated at all: “What a Piece of Work Is Man,” a second-act song, “The rest is silence,” the show’s last line. They still resonate in 2017 and undoubtedly always will, for they come from Hamlet, which has just started a ten-week run at the Public Theater.
Hair was so popular that its Japanese and French cast albums were released in America, too. London gave birth not only to its own cast album, but also released the Israeli recording. Songs that were cut (or didn’t make either of the first two cast albums) came to light in the whimsically named DisinHAIRited. (My favorite: “The Bed,” which – in case you’re wondering — doesn’t merely deal with sex.)
Least expected of all is Divine Hair: Mass in F, a concert that was held on May 9, 1971 at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Seven songs from Hair were interspersed with liturgical music.
Those two recordings are still available, as are the original off-Broadway and Broadway cast albums in one deluxe two-disc set. And what happens after you listen to all these albums? The rest is silence.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.