It’s one thing to see Hair on Broadway, where it won this year’s Tony Award for best revival of a musical. The first rock opera, Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s snapshot of a fleeting social movement in the East Village showed up at New York Shakespeare Festival in the autumn of the 1967 and transferred to Broadway the following year. It’s quite another thing to see it at the Chance Theatre, a small venue in Anaheim Hills, where the production’s extended run is bringing the best box-office returns in the theater’s 11-year history.
It makes sense on Broadway, even 41 years later, as an homage to a wondrously, impossibly idealistic affront to the prevailing family values of chastity until marriage, and unquestioning trust in the military and the ways it was being deployed in Vietnam. New York and San Francisco were always hubs of the antiwar movement, and here is a musical about a tribe of naturalist-pacifists barely out of their teens, the children of presumably affluent or at least financially comfortable parents, who, in a time of rare economic bounty for the United States, chose to live in the streets of the East Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury; who believed that personal hygiene and shaving legs and arms were the overrated and pointless habits of their clueless parents. Of course this would play well on the coasts.
But everything this tribe mocks — professional dress codes, traditional morality, patriotism, and the treadmill of labor, consumption and raising a traditional family — were and remain cultural bedrocks in Orange County. One might imagine that the show is drawing the rowdies from nearby conservative Chapman College, but that wasn’t in evidence the performance I attended. Though the actors appeared barely beyond childhood, the audience was very much a graying-haired, ponytailed crowd.
Among the reasons for the sellout crowds is the sheer, sassy exuberance of the 15-member ensemble. Audience participation was always part of this show’s rite, particularly at the end, when patrons are invited to dance with the ensemble to the strains of “Let the Sunshine In.” But as part of his sleek staging, with KC Wilkerson’s lighting design of automated, roving beams, and with Kelly Todd’s taut choreography, director Oanh Nguyen pulls out all the stops of actor-audience interaction, with performers dancing in the aisles and cavorting into the crowd throughout.
Another reason for the show’s draw is the clarity and quality of the voices. When Amber J. Snead belts “when the moon is in the seventh house,” from the opening number, “Aquarius,” it’s a clarion call, one that sets the tone for this production. As the stoic Crissy, Raleigh R. Bisbee conjures Joan Baez in “Frank Mills,” Crissy’s only song — and it leaves you aching for a reprise, or at least another Bisbee solo.
Finally, there are the larger reasons that this revival would speak to the O.C.: its depiction of unrequited love’s pangs amidst a sexual revolution (“Easy to be Hard,” beautifully rendered by Michaelia Leigh); and the drumbeat of the War in Vietnam, which here snags a bewildered soul named Claude (James May, looking very Aryan), who, after receiving his draft card, can’t or won’t flee to Canada.
Truisms aboutthe War in Iraq are revealed by this Hair’s reflections on the War in Vietnam: that the lack of an antiwar movement in the 21st century was directly related to the lack of a military draft (the pressures of which are depicted here), and a press wearing blindfolds (images of U.S. casualties and coffins in Iraq were banned). Compare also the expressed torment of LBJ and even Nixon over the quagmire of Vietnam with the deafness and hostility of the Bush-Cheney team to all criticism, even to the early rallying cry of hundreds of thousands of protesters in Washington at the outset of the War in Iraq.
But neither the complicity of the press nor the paternalistic despotism of the Bush administration could quell the slowly growing perception that the underlying, official reasons for the War in Iraq were as much a sham as the strategy for winning there. The underlying purpose for that war, and our previous wars in Nicaragua, Vietnam — and the reasons in the 19th century that we annexed huge chunks of Mexican territory, including California, with our troops armed and ready in Mexico City in case there was a problem — was to establish bases of commerce. This was no different from what the British, French and Dutch had done previously all over the world. We won the land-grab tug of war with Mexico unfair and square. No qualms of national conscience about that.
The only reason Vietnam has been so ridiculously characterized as the place we “lost our innocence” was, as in Iraq, we lost confidence that we could win there. That’s the main reason both wars turned so unpopular. Nothing stifles reflection or qualms of conscience faster than a military victory.
This is why one of director Nguyen’s closing images in Hair at the Chance is so wrenching. It’s a scenic picture accented by John MacDonald’s Projection Design in which Claude, blond locks pinned back, and dressed in full military regalia, stands at attention, with a name tag beamed with pinpoint accuracy onto his chest. Slowly, the image melts into a projected image that comes up behind him. In the blink of an eye, as the anthem “Let the Sunshine In” begins to swell, Claude is surrounded by names until he becomes a ghostly silhouette, at one with the black wall of the Vietnam War Memorial, with all those names of fallen soldiers from Orange County.
Nguyen’s idea is an expansion on a similar image in Milos Foreman’s 1979 film of Hair, in which the hippie tribe visits at Arlington National Cemetery the grave of their fallen friend. From there, “Let the Sunshine In” provides the segue to the antiwar March on Washington, a gathering of hundreds of thousands, as American flags and peace signs are hoisted side by side.
After his blistering War Memorial image, Nguyen follows the script and strains for that show-closing feel-good “sunshine” chorale with the audience dancing on the stage. But there is no March on Washington here, just a party on the heels of a very moving funeral. If it was meant to be like an Irish wake, it came too soon.
We’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, a historic event where hippies from around the world gathered at a farm in upstate New York to listen, largely stoned, to their generation’s best musicians, free of charge. It was an anomaly that defied human nature: Despite muddy, bracing physical conditions, the hippies lived up to their mantra of making love not war. An unprecedented tribe of 400,000 gathered for a rock festival at which not a punch or a stone was thrown. There was a common, if not communal, understanding that this event would defy commerce — and define a generation.
It was a moment as complex and fleeting as the hippies themselves, because somebody was watching, somebody who quickly understood that these baby boomers were a perfect target for marketing. Within a year, hippie chic was for sale in shopping centers across the country; with that, the hippie ethos became meaningless. In another year, it was out of fashion anyway, and we were on to punk. And now, tie-dye is back and all the rage.
That funeral near show’s end is so moving, not just because it’s for Claude, but because it’s also for the quixotic idea that people with mere desire and a flower can stop the profit machine in its tracks. As we’ve seen recently, only the profit machine itself can accomplish that.
HAIR | Book and lyrics by GEROME RAGNI and JAMES RADO | Music by GALT MacDERMOT | Presented by CHANCE THEATER, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills | Through August 23 | (714) 777-3033