I have zero nostalgia for the 1960s, but I love this “Hair.”
Everything aligned per fectly when Diane Paulus resurrected the 1967 epoch-making show in Central Park last summer. Not only did the production throb with life, but having it play under the stars, for free, elevated it to a near-mythical level. Even the audience participation came across like an expression of community rather than cheeseball pandering.
Transferring that spell to the crowded confines of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (and charging Broadway admission prices) was risky, but “Hair” has emerged triumphant.
Director Paulus, scenic designer Scott Pask and choreographer Karole Armitage have completely appropriated their new surroundings. The set has gained in depth and height, and the actors regularly bound into the orchestra and boxes. (Beware if you sit on an aisle: You will smell youth culture up close and personal.)
The most significant change is actually linked more to our perception of the show than to its content or staging, testifying to the power of the multilayered vision of “Hair.”
The acid-tab-thin plot centers on a “tribe” of New York flower children led by a hunky free spirit, Berger (Will Swenson). They drop out of school, live on the streets, engage in polymorphously delicious sex and enthusiastically burn their draft cards.
These days, the nation is fixated less on war and more on the economy. As a result, the scenes that resonate most are the ones in which the kids exultantly reject the rat race. It’s also hard not to read in Paulus and Armitage’s thrilling, sweaty physicality a dig at the way so many people now live via Twittered proxy.
But the text/subtext/context of “Hair” would mean little if the young and — coyness be damned! — wholesomely hot cast didn’t also bring to glorious life the show’s avalanche of stick-in-your-head tunes.
Modern musicals strain to belch out a couple of hummable songs. Lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado and composer Galt MacDermot tossed off close to 40.
With breathtaking precision and conciseness, they dispatched spoofs of Tin Pan Alley, country and doo-wop along with hazy psychedelic explorations, folk ballads and full-on rock anthems. It’s a tall order for any troupe, especially since more than a dozen actors get distinctive solos.
This “Hair” bench has great depth. Some stick out, of course — Swenson, Gavin Creel as Claude, Andrew Kober as Margaret Mead, Allison Case as Crissy — but the musical’s singular glory lies in the generosity with which it allows so many to shine.
Inviting the audience to rush the stage at the end is very much in that spirit. Paulus doesn’t shy away from the inevitable crash landing after Berger cries out, “I wanna stay high forever!” But she also helps us understand how important it is to fully bask in a moment.
“Hair” is a musical for the ages because it’s a musical for the now.