“Be free, no guilt, be whatever you are, do whatever you want, just as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”
Truth be told, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to write a review of the 50th anniversary tour production of Hair at Cardiff’s New Theatre. I just knew it as ‘that hippie musical’, so colour me surprised when I found out how influential and relevant this American tribal love-rock show still is today.
Set in 1967, Hair shows the hippie ‘tribe’ youngsters in the East Village of New York as they yearn to change the world, question authority and the American flag. They are wild and colourful souls living in the “Age of Aquarius”, united in protest and song against conscription to the Vietnam War. The show is most well known for being controversial due to its bold depiction of the use of illegal drugs, sexuality, racial equality, irreverence for American patriotism, and most notably, proud displays of nudity.
To celebrate 50 years of Hair, Jonathan O’Boyle directed a sell-out London run of the show. His production of the psychedelic rock musical won the 2018 WhatsOnStage Award for ‘Best Off-West End Production’ and was nominated for ‘Best Musical Revival’. Now the cast and production staff are on tour around the UK starring Dancing on Ice Winner Jake Quickenden, Daisy Wood-Davis (Hollyoaks/ Dreamboats & Petticoats) and Marcus Collins (X-Factor Finalist/ Kinky Boots). You can check out the tour dates HERE.
But let’s go back over 50 years to April 1967. James Rado and Gerome Ragni, two young actors, witness 100,000 young people in New York’s Central Park peacefully demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Taking inspiration from these people with their beads, flowers and pot, Rado and Ragni began their research into other demonstrations and the individuals attending. Using this inspiration, they soon created some short scenes and songs which they showed to Joe Papp, a director and producer. October 17th 1967, Hair debuted at the Public Theatre, and soon made its way onto Broadway and ran for 1,750 performances.
It didn’t take long for Hair to set its sights on London’s West End. This tribal love-rock musical opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on September 37, 1968 and ran for 1,997 performances. The show was going to open earlier in the year, but they were delayed waiting for the abolition of theatre censorship under the Theatres Act 1968 – previously scripts had to be approved for performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. This censored any plays that portrayed anything that may offend, but many playwrights and producers found this restrictive.
As soon as theatre censorship disappeared, it was like the rush of water after a dam breaks; Hair stormed in to proudly show off everything that had been taboo, shocking audiences. Some people even walked out of the show because they found it so scandalous.
So, what did I think about the 50th anniversary tour of Hair?
While I was dubious going in, I did enjoy the production. I thought the cast were very dynamic with strong vocals to support the Grammy award-winning score. The choreography was energetic and they took full advantage of the staging and aisles to create a visually psychedelic performance that pulled the audience in and bombarded their senses.
The story and some of the themes were a bit out of my comfort zone, but I mean this in a good way. The bold use of profanity, depictions of drug use, and full-frontal nudity on stage were shocking. No wonder Hair was the talk of the town when it first appeared on New York and London stages. The show is undoubtedly a product of hippie counterculture and the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. And through these scandalous displays, Rado and Ragni have integrated the core values of the hippie movement such as free love, pacifism, tolerance, community, and sexual liberation.
The barrier between the stage and audience was quickly broken down. Within the first few minutes, one of the actors talked directly to us and took off his trousers, revealing a thong. This bold acknowledgment of the audience, along with dancing in the aisles and bringing audience members on stage to dance to the reprise of ‘Let The Sun Shine In’ invited us to take part in the hippie movement and their values portrayed throughout the musical.
Hair is most well-known for featuring nudity at the end of Act 1. It only lasts for a few moments as the characters strip off their clothes, providing a clear message about standing together and casting off false values. The shocking content serves its purpose: to be controversial and defy expectations. And this controversy is a handy marketing tool to draw in audiences who want to see the outrageous display for themselves.
The shocking content is just as relevant now as it was then. Hair was written 50 years ago, however the topics the characters are struggling with are still fought over today – sexual freedom and diversity, drug use, racism, pacifism and environmentalism. If I were told the show was written 5 years ago, I would have believed them. There are moments that hit close to home. Especially as the play starts with recent recordings of President Trump of the United States, saying “bomb the hell out of them” about ISIS and a news reporter saying “we conducted more than 150 airstrikes on Iraq”. The recordings are joined by more and more quotes about war, until a final statement by Lyndon B. Johnson, “War is always the same”, rings out throughout the theatre before the cast come on stage. They draw a stark comparison between then and now – have things really changed in 50 years?
Hair is timeless – ahead of its time, you could say – the values of the hippie counterculture can still be seen today. But do we still get the message? Because of TV and social media, we’re constantly assaulted by controversy and shocking content. The visuals used by Rado and Ragni 50 years ago hadn’t been seen on stage before, but now we can see portrayals of drug use and nudity whenever we want.
While the messages of love and peace still come through, does an oversaturation of controversy in media leave them muted?
If you’re interested in seeing for yourself, you can check out the tour dates HERE.
And don’t forget to check out what else is going on at the New Theatre in Cardiff.