08.08.08: culture blotter {hair @ shakespeare in the park}

to paraphrase julia roberts's ex-husband, i don't like hippies, and i don't like musicals, and i don't like much. that said, the delacorte is the perfect place to check out hair, ye olde american tribal love-rock musical: james rado and gerome ragni wrote it about the kids who hung out in central park's sheep meadow in the sixties, and a free show outside at dusk in the summer softens even the hardest haters. so do a picnic dinner of panini and olives from the ninth avenue vintner and an aluminum thermos of kitschy shakespeare wine.*

so did the massive summer storm that galloped across central park twenty minutes after the show started. it was big and mean, but came as no surprise: the unruffled onstage band pulled a plastic tarp around itself like a giant shower curtain and stayed put. umbrellas sprouted like mushrooms all over the theater, and we pulled out one of the hamlet ponchos we'd picked up back in june (and the shakepeare wine). we also shared an umbrella and gave our spare to the guys on our left, which i thought was very hair of us. when the cast crept back to the sponged-off stage forty minutes later, we all looked like dirty love children, the wine was gone, and i was prepared to try to appreciate counterculture via broadway.

according to artistic director oskar eustis, "hair was the last time that a stage musical became our national soundtrack; that's what gives it an unbelievable pull." the show's big stick is, for younger non-broadway types, also its biggest liability: for me, songs like "aquarius" and "let the sunshine in" recall the dance number at the end of the 40-year-old virgin, or recent commercials for retirement funds and antidepressants.** most unhelpful when one is to be thinking of flower power and/or the horrors of war. the tune i liked best - the wistful, belle & sebastian-ish "frank mills" - was unfamiliar to me, and lovely. the ones that have been knocking about in my head for the last week - "manchester england" and "hair" - are two of the most pernicious earworms i've ever heard (very disconcerting to jolt awake at three, as i did last night, singing "oh say can you see my eyes / if you can then my hair's too short"). all things considered, the songbook was pretty muscular, and the cast (led by jonathan groff, who was nominated for a tony for spring awakening) had great pipes. plot, on the other hand, was virtually nonexistent: hair is a revue that develops themes (musical and political), not characters. there's a vague draft - deployment - death - denouement at the end of the second act, but most of it happens in the last ten minutes of the show (i understand that being forced to go to war is a shock, but "because it was barely mentioned before" is disappointing). it's telling, i think, that the production's most affecting lines are shakespeare's ("what a piece of work is man" is straight outta hamlet), not rado's or ragni's.

all things considered, hair was imperfect but winning: as i learned by spending nine months in a teensy dorm room with an extremely charismatic phish enthusiast from vermont, hippies can wear you down. who needs pride?

*which turned out to be quite fine. my original plan had been to find wee boozy-school-lunch boxes of french rabbit (which is both lovely and dirt cheap), but they don't seem to be available yet; the samples that materialized at work must have been promo only.

**it's easy to see why madison ave loves hair so much - the fifty- and sixty-year-olds who danced onstage at the end of the show were so transported by nostalgia that i think they were actually weeping.

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