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Life Arts

Good 'Hair' Day

By       Message Uzi Silber     Permalink
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Contemporary family life for us is a dreary cycle consisting largely of reverse commuting, laundry, piano drills, school bus drop-offs and juvenile vegetable refusal. This leaves precious little time for much else, let alone a night out on the town for a pair of beleaguered parents.

But last-minute complimentary orchestra seats to a Broadway play possess a mysterious power to slam the brakes on the familial treadmill and abruptly reshuffle parental priorities. And if such tickets happen to be for a revival of an exciting musical full of shapely naked people belting out great tunes, all the better.

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My wife and I were the lucky recipients of such tickets. Items such as veggies, baths, and timely bedtime once deemed so urgent, magically vanished from our nightly must-do list and were replaced by our severely neglected entertainment needs.

Childfree and tickets in hand, we rode the F train uptown to 42nd street to catch a new musical revival about spoiled and horny hippies singing and copulating in our very backyard. That musical would be Hair.

As a child in Greenwich Village, I recoiled from the shaggy and malodorous specimens wrapped in dirty shmatehs, tossing Frisbees in Washington Square Park. Yet there I was in the Al Hirschfeld Theater two generations later, enjoying a howling and tousled hippie mob charging off the stage and into the crowd, shattering that famous 'fourth wall' traditionally separating players from audience.

The lead, a Jim Morrison-Abby Hoffman hybrid known as Berger, swings an axe at that fourth wall right from the get-go, as he gamely confronts several unsuspecting individuals in the audience in a yippie-inflected version of a Don Rickles Borscht Belt routine. Berger's opening shtick seamlessly segues into the now immortalized soundtrack that has sold all those millions of copies.

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Hair first opened off-Broadway in the fall of 1967 to thoroughly-mixed though intrigued reviews. Such contradictory sentiments were aptly captured at the time by Howard Taubman of the New York Times, who described the performance as an "indiscriminate explosion of exuberant, impertinent youthful talents" where "coherence is lacking, discipline meager and taste often deplorable."

As it happened, audiences embraced the musical's daring free-form performance style and didn't mind its incoherence. That plot was largely irrelevant here was a point made by a female cast member at a press conference ahead of Hair's 1968 Broadway debut. "Man," said she earnestly, "we're not asking you to follow anything. Just to dig what's going on". Internalizing these instructions, I too stopped thinkin' and started diggin'.

Despite his misgivings, Taubman did note Hair's vitality, which reminded him of The Grand Street Follies, a popular 1920s revue named for the fancy Lower East Side boulevard that my wife and I abandoned for the evening. Moreover, the eminent reviewer did like the talented cast, and correctly foresaw that the play's score would "shape up as an authentic voice of the popular culture of 1967."

Taubman's reservations meant nothing to Tom O'Horgan, the groundbreaking director who revamped the musical for Broadway. Blithely ignoring the reviewer's critique, O'Horgan proceeded to significantly ramp up the vulgarity and the sex, and in a controversial new twist to Act I, introduced a mass display of bare breasts alongside an assortment of other appendages otherwise safely packed away.

The fuss surrounding the nudity on stage was considerable. The Times reported that Belgian actress and sex symbol Monique Van Vooren had announced her bold intention to attend opening night in a completely transparent chiffon blouse.-

How disappointed she must have been when Vogue magazine rendered her appearance anticlimactic by "endors(ing) the nipple as a high fashion accessory".

Sitting beside some eleven year old who had no business being there, and with Berger's assault dissolving into the atonal intro to 'Aquarius', I was oddly overcome by a tangential squall of images from my own experience of the hippie era: a frayed silhouette of my grandmother reading the Yiddish newspaper at our kitchen table on Manhattan's West End Avenue; the pleasant aroma wafting from my dad's pipe in his law office on Columbus Circle.

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Random childhood impressions followed, of a Manhattan far grittier and more threatening, yet refreshingly free of blackberries and laptops, internets and MP3 players.

During intermission, we encountered Frank Lautenberg, the eminent US Senator from across the Hudson. "Isn't this a lot of fun?" enthused the octogenarian legislator.

With my left hand resting a wee too-familiarly on his shoulder and a hi-ball gripped in my right, I nodded exultantly. And then, amid the grins, drinks and chitchat, my eyes fixed on the senator's very impressive silvery pompadour -- at a venue, I remembered, dedicated wholly to the celebration of the human mane in all its forms.


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Uzi Silber writes the 'Jew's Muse' column in Ha'aretz. His work also appears in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times.

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