By Sujata S. Mukhi
Till Dec. 17
By Gerome Ragni
and James Rado
Directed by Chris Millado
Onstage Theater, Greenbelt 1,
IT HURTS that this 50-year-old, rabble-rousing musical is still relevant. It cuts deep, especially in Act 2 where a surreal montage is full of acts of state-sponsored violence and death.
Hair, which closes Repertory Philippines’ season in its own 50th year, is the company’s most political play, staged by director Chris Millado in the most apolitical manner. In the Q&A portion on opening night, Mr. Millado revealed that they had the option to maintain the milieu of this play about peace-loving hippies in the late 1960s, or contemporize it with peace-loving hipsters.
By keeping the production in its original time capsule, it keeps the production safe from anyone’s slow release hit list. As the Buddhist saying goes, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Let’s then just look at this as a staging of a musical set in the ’60s, even as its glorious opening song “Aquarius” places that moon in the seventh house, signifying the dawning of the age when humanity finally takes control of its destiny, according to astrological study. A cosmic People Power.
This was just an exuberant musical to me when I saw the Broadway revival in 2010. I watched it because I was thrilled to see American Idol alums Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young in lead roles. But experiencing it in the current Philippine political and cultural environment has made all the difference. Although now the issue of dodging draft cards is non-existent (well, for now at least), the musical tackles grabbing of ancestral lands, warmongering and profiteering, social and economic injustice, racism, gender inequality, misguided patriotism, immoral political leadership, environmental degradation. And it hurts that all of these things — ALL of them — are still the prevailing issues of the day. Still just an innocuous show set in the ’60s?
FLIPPING OFF ‘THE MAN’
Inspired by their personal and imagined encounters with protesters and draft-dodgers at the height of the Vietnam war, when the Western civil rights movement was gaining momentum, creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni collaborated with composer Galt MacDermot to develop what was touted to be the first rock musical.
Less plot- and more concept-focused, Hair follows a tribe of social dropouts in New York that gesture a collective up yours to the reigning institutions of government, business, education, and the military. Young men grew their hair long and wild, and refused to sign up for required military service. Women sloughed off their roles of subservience, and left creature comforts of home and controlling parents to love who they will, regardless of gender or race. “Make love not war” was the mantra of the heart; “Peace Now,” its urgent demand.
The first act seemed like one frenetic, overlong exposition of characters and conflicts through profane lyric, the haze of incense and bong, and lots of Kama Sutra-style limb entwining. Consider that just within the first 20 minutes of the opening, after the exultant number “Aquarius,” loincloth-clad Berger (George Schulze) ran up and down the audience aisle and sang about his desire for his 16-year-old virgin lover Donna, or My Donna, or irreverently, the Madonna?
Shortly after, the cast ecstatically, in almost religious fervor, ejaculated in song a litany of recreational pharmacopoeia. After all, drugs for millennia have been used to s(t)imulate spiritual experiences. The scene then segued into another list, this time of sexual indulgences (such lyrics you may have never heard in any other musical), then another evocation of racial epithets, particularly for black Americans.
The audience seemed stone cold, perhaps offended, befuddled, uncomfortable, and fully judgmental at what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to provoke for pure shock value.
True, there is this real-life president that pleasures himself with his oral fixation for expletives, with a deliberate attempt to provoke. You would think that would have thickened the skin of the citizenry by now. But you could feel the burden of the actors to carry the weight of a resistant audience that couldn’t, or wouldn’t connect. (As a side note, I couldn’t help but compare how generous the audience was with Kinky Boots, a musical about a shoe-loving drag queen, and how primed they were to love it right from the get-go.)
I have to admit that I had to make a conscious choice to overcome my upbringing of so-called middle-class propriety, see beyond my own impatience at what I perceived to be indulgent hedonism and carelessness. But I couldn’t shake off the knotted feeling in that ode to drugs: rather dangerous bait for trigger-happy double-barrel wielders, especially in these times.
“But this was the ’60s,” Rep President and CEO Mindy Perez-Rubio said in the Q&A. “The hippies were peace-loving, didn’t mean any harm.” And in the Philippines, only partook of less harmful drugs like marijuana and one other, I don’t remember which (though that may be a bit of revisionist nostalgia).
But it wasn’t just the ’60s. This was a time in the US when colored minorities did not yet have the same legal rights as the whites; where a male student sporting long hair could be kicked out of school; same-sex love and interracial love could warrant social exile, and in some states oral sex was illegal. Making a public stand against the Vietnam War labeled one unpatriotic, even a traitor, and could have resulted in imprisonment. To question corporate economics made one a communist, un-American. Flouting convention wasn’t fanciful, it was dangerous.
It was in this environment that the counterculture of the hippies and the flower power movement started to bloom. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were not tools of immoral escape, but instruments that fashioned a new moral code ruled by affinity rather than enmity.
The production of Hair itself on Broadway in 1968 (its previous incarnation ran for a few weeks off-Broadway the year before, thus 2017 being its 50th year) featured onstage nudity for the first time ever in any Broadway production.
The lyrics used words previously reserved for backrooms and brothels. Racial slurs were sung under spotlights in New York City. The music was loud, rhythmic and eclectic, used jazz and rock. There was a semblance of a plot, but the songs centered more on themes. Times were indeed a’ changin’. The production, like the movement itself, sought to provoke, stimulate, to get people woke.
A part of me has assumed that a performance piece that is complete unto itself is superior than one that needs to be explained. But I realize that for pieces that are game-changers, it’s important to arm oneself with the back story to fully appreciate new directions and standards they bring to the stage.
Knowledge about Hair’s context is needed to appreciate how radical and pioneering both its form and content was, so as not to get consumed by one’s own judgments that everyone is just permissively tripping in la la land. Ragni’s and Rado’s lyrics were both esoteric and hard core, lyrical and lascivious.
The set, designed by Joey Mendoza, was playful, and made use, as backdrop, of tassels and fringe that was a trademark of ’60s casual wear. Choreography by PJ Rebullida was energetic and the orchestration, enlivening.
In the Q&A, musical director Ejay Yatco said that the score provided to Repertory Philippines by its owners were only chords, and the music was meant to be expanded and interpreted according the vision of the production. The volume mixing was inconsistent though, and there were several times that the voice of the singer would get drowned out and key lyrics were not heard.
John Batalla’s lighting was moody and, of course, psychedelic. No need for hits, Timothy Leary, if Mr. Batalla can recreate the hallucinogenic effect for you! But this writer is not sure if it was deliberate that Markki Stroem, who plays Claude, didn’t get his spot when he was interacting with the audience.
And you have a cast that gave it their all, even as they pulled the audience’s weight, particularly in the first act. Mr. Schulze’s Berger was so full-blown wild and crazy, and he sustained his energy to the end. Berger demands that Claude burn his draft card, and this plunges Claude into an identity crisis of who he is and what he believes in.
It is to the handsome Mr. Stroem’s credit, and I say this with much appreciation, that he is not afraid to look ugly. As he agonizes and writhes in the Act 2 montage of war and death, you see this man in a living hell, a painful transformation from his devil-may-care persona in Act 1.
I loved the openness (no pun there) of Caisa Borromeo in The Vibrator Play. As the activist Sheila, she is easy and fluid in this one. She sings a poignant “Easy to be Hard” as she is rejected by one of her two lovers. (That song is also an insightful statement on how do-gooders can respect and love all of humanity as a concept, but be lousy at honoring and respecting individual relationships.) Standouts are once again Maronne Cruz who plays the pregnant Jeanie, and Cara Barredo and Naths Everett as tribe members Crissy and Dionne, respectively. No matter how big or small the roles they take on, these actors bring a compelling intensity and commitment. More of them please in future productions anytime, anywhere!
It took a while for the audience to warm up, but Act 2 draws us in despite our own judgmental hang-ups. The tragic, surreal, complicated war montage was masterfully directed. It culminated in a powerful, desperate plea, the urgent call for decency and hope in “Let the Sunshine In.” The anguish etched on each actor’s face was almost too much to bear.
The mood of the song was so vastly different from the version covered by the soul group The Fifth Dimension. The year after Hair opened on Broadway, The Fifth Dimension released their medley of “Aquarius”/”Let the Sunshine In.” It was celebratory and mystical, and that version was what was popular in the Philippines then. But this one. This was pain.
And the pain lingers. I wonder, where has all the flower power gone? Those against the establishment once upon a time, are now part of it. Those that trusted that they would be taken care of like the lilies in the field, are now the ones that build gentrified condominiums and malls over those fields. It is a cynicism hard to shake. I need to remember that the Age of Aquarius has just started, and since each age lasts two thousand years, harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding will be taking their time.