The musical Hair lays claim to being the world’s first ‘Rock Musical’. I’m not qualified to argue the point, but there can be little doubt that, when it arrived on Broadway in April 1968 following its initial run at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in October 1967 (hence 50th anniversary), and then a short engagement over Christmas and New Year at The Cheetah nightclub, it was not like anything then running.
In fact, as thirteen new songs were added between closing at The Cheetah and opening at The Biltmore Theatre, the show couldn’t have been much like the one that had opened the previous October either. It’s a show which the writers have continued to work on, and indeed James Rado made changes for this production.
Gerome Ragni and James Rado (book and lyrics) were both jobbing actors off-Broadway who found themselves working together in 1964, and came up with the idea of writing a show based very loosely around their own milieu. A show, more importantly, in which they could potentially find employment. There would be two male leads. One in Act One, the other in Act Two. That’s just one of many problems with the book of the show, more of which later…
Ragni and Rado, and the composer who was brought onboard to write their rock score, Galt Macdermot, were either extremely astute or very, very lucky as in the Summer of 1967 tens of thousands of people congregated on San Francisco for ‘the summer of love’. The counter-culture was the zeitgeist, and they had a show about it.
However, to this production which was first seen last November in Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, and now occupies The Vaults under Waterloo Station from floor to ceiling giving the rather over-warm railway arch of an auditorium a certain womb-like quality, for what is a very immersive production. That, coupled with the breaking of the fourth wall during several parts of the show – including the ending, when the audience is invited down onto the playing area of this thrust stage to dance and sing along – certainly works in bringing a much needed feeling of ‘connection’ to the piece.
There isn’t much plot, but then again there isn’t much room for it as the programme lists the show as having 41 musical numbers. It’s basically musical theatre for people who go to rock concerts.
However, what we do have in the ‘Tribe’ of 14 proto-hippies is an extremely strong ensemble, though there is one individual I’d like to mention.
Andy Coxon as George Berger, the free-loving and slightly irreverent tribe member is exceptional. Not only can his every word be heard (the cast are mic’d, and very well, by Calum Robinson and Max Perryment, the sound designers) but when he moves about the stage he exudes charisma. This is a man whose story we want to hear.
And that, I’m afraid, is where the problem lies in the show for me. Although he’s sort of around and taking part, it’s not his story which is leading the narrative, so actually there’s nothing to invest in emotionally. I was interested but not engaged.
Matters are further compounded in Act Two when Berger almost completely disappears to make way for Claude (Robert Metson, excellent again), the Act Two leading man who we have met in Act One and who is agonising about reconciling his pacifist views with the draft card he’s received calling him to fight in Vietnam.
Still, in the end, what does it matter? I don’t go to rock concerts, so am probably not the target audience. And as this is the 50th anniversary production they must have got something right.