John Rockwell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710

Hair has been the most successful music drama of the decade, if not of the entire postwar era…. [It] has been exalted as a paean to the health and vitality of today's youth, denounced as an open slander of time-tested ideals, dismissed as a commercial exploitation. Whatever one's opinions as to its worth, nobody can deny its success. (p. 9)

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Hair has been widely hailed as the salvation of the Broadway musical, which has been dying an inexorable death from massive public indifference to arm-cranking chorines purveying plastic joy. But if this is so, then Hair and the phenomenon it represents must also be of great interest to opera-lovers, particularly those concerned with the unpleasant fact that a genuinely popular grand opera hasn't been written in forty-five years—not since Turandot. Somehow, somewhere back there along the line, audiences and composers parted ways; and ever since, people have been trying to rediscover the old ideal of the theater as the direct expression of its community, at the same time popular and profound…. And such hopes are some indication of why a work like Hair must be of direct concern to opera professionals and audiences. (pp. 9-10)

Hair, and the whole genre of rock opera which it can be said to represent, has aroused extraordinary interest in a wide variety of circles. We are now at the onset of a veritable inundation of such rock musicals. (p. 10)

Most of these efforts, one can rather confidently predict, will be cheap fiascos. And the main reason is that Hair has many more characteristics than the simple throwing together of rock music with the old, tired theatrical presuppositions. Hair is unlike the average musical or opera not only because of its music, which alternates more acceptable soft ballads with raucous rock, but because of its rudimentary plot—the saga of a hippie "tribe" whose leader, Claude, is eventually drafted into the army—its overtly revolutionary and exuberantly defiant tone, its nudity, its (rather tentative) efforts at direct audience involvement and the quasi-communal nature of its performance. Most of these features have appeared elsewhere, singly or in combination, and often in more radical form. Hair is a good show, but it is just a part of something bigger than itself, and it is this "something bigger" that the vast majority of imitations will fail to capture. (pp. 10, 12)

Hair casts tend to blend from life onto the stage and back into life again: there isn't much in the way of makeup or costumes to take on and off. The quality, style and details of the performance vary from city to city and night to night. The degree of direct audience participation—actors into the crowd, audience members onstage—similarly differs.

In this sense, Hair is a genuine part of the new theater, both musical and nonmusical, that has emerged of late. The more sensationalistic aspects of this theater—nudity, deliberate pornography and outrageousness of one sort or another—are just a part of a larger phenomenon that has its most immediate roots in the "happenings" of the early sixties, in the Becks' Living Theatre, in modern "dance" events like Ann Halprin's, in radical political theater like San Francisco's Mime Troupe. (p. 12)

Hair's appeal to the straight world—for all the well-crafted mediocrity of much of its music, for all the ultimately suspect quality of its political and societal stance, for all its inevitable entanglements with the old theatrical system—lies in its freshness and seeming honesty. Here at last, people must feel, is a show real and natural in a way that Broadway's manipulation-theater may once have been but can be no longer. What is fascinating about Hair's appeal is its very character of compromise, its tenuous position between the hip and the commercial, between the popular and the sophisticated, between nature and artifice.

Most of Hair's imitators will fail because there simply aren't many geniuses in this world. But what Hair and all the other products—pure and not so pure—of the new theater have done is immeasurably to enrich the range of the possible. (p. 13)

John Rockwell, "Long Hair? Can 'the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical' Be the Opera of Tomorrow?" in Opera News (© 1969 by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.), Vol. 34, No. 8, December 20, 1969, pp. 8-13.

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