Monday, July 27, 2009

HAIR in the Park--Forty Years Later

The Age of Aquarius Re-Visited

The first time I saw the rock musical “Hair” in 1968 in London, I had left my job and my boyfriend in Manhattan to work for a British magazine, arriving just in time to enjoy two years of swinging London. “Hair” was a scandal (the cast famously got naked at the end of the first act.) It was no coincidence that it opened in London one day after the abolishment of the Theatre Acts which had given the Lord Chamberlain the power of censorship since 1737. I was thrilled by my first look at the theater of the streets—the music of a new anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-everything generation: my own.

When I learned, last summer that a revival of “Hair “ was being staged at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, that the tickets were free and there was a special line for senior citizens, I drove from home in Grafton, MA. , listening, on the way, to the original cast album and getting a little misty at the thought of how young and optimistic we were in 1968, protesting a misguided war and believing we could make a difference. I slept on my daughter’s couch and set out early for the Park.

I reached the Delacorte box office at 8:15 a.m. and joined the seniors’ line – thirty-some individuals sitting patiently on three very long benches. The other line stretched out of sight into the park—young people sprawled on the ground, some in sleeping bags.

I sat next to Ivan, a lawyer smartly dressed in a dark blue suit and black tie who was fielding clients’ calls on his cell phone. Soon all three benches for our line were filled and there was no more room to sit. A newcomer passed by muttering “Bunch of hippies!” and we chuckled. But we were a bunch of hippies….grown up. When Lorraine, a striking woman with her English spaniel on a leash, mentioned her recent trip to India—floating down the Ganges and sleeping on the riverbank in tents—she collected a handful of retirement-age listeners, including me, all of us planning trips to India and eager for advice.

Our five-hour wait was eased by nearby bathroom facilities, a hot-dog cart, and menus from Andy’s Deli on Columbus, which delivers to the line. We did the Times crossword, read, debated politics and exchanged life stories. Lorraine related her years of struggle to protect her rent-controlled apartment which ended in a settlement and a new home.

“I used to be all about work,” Ivan mused, “But now I think it’s more important to enjoy life.” He fished out a photo of his grandson whom he frequently flies cross country to visit.

At 1 p.m. Curt returned with a handful of tickets. “One ticket or two?” he asked each of us, then checked proof of age. Triumphantly, Lorraine, Ivan and I all scored two. Then, right after me, I heard Curt say, “I’m sorry folks. That’s the last one.”

At 8 p.m. we gathered with our guests on a perfect summer evening, under the “brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,” as Shakespeare and the tribe members of “Hair” described it. The first six rows of one section were for us. The rest were filled with hundreds of people who, like the cast, had not been born when “Hair” premiered.

The performance was just as electrifying as when I saw it in London, only this time I kept turning around to look at the beaming faces of my generation —singing along and remembering. The lithe young cast members displayed better abs than I recalled from the original production and at the end of the first act they shed their clothes and ran off stage.

During the intermission, my daughter pondered the changes in bikini waxing since 1968. Lorraine and I exclaimed in unison that no one had heard of bikini waxing back then. The conversation turned to pot smoking and a stately woman sitting nearby chimed in—“I started late. I was stoned for most of the summer of ‘73. That was after my ex-husband came out of the closet and before people started dying of AIDs.”

As we reminisced, I realized that for most of the audience, like my daughter, this performance was a time capsule—an entertaining look into an era long gone. But for us it was a chance to revisit our youth and reflect on how things had changed. It wasn’t depressing, although we were no longer young and optimistic and our country was once more fighting an unpopular war. At least we were still here. Some among us could no longer sing “I got my hair”, but like the kids on stage, we could belt out “I got life” without it being a lie.

As the second act began, Lorraine asked me, “Are you going to go up on the stage and dance at the end?”

I thought about it. “I didn’t forty years ago.”

Lorraine leaned forward. “Joan, I think this time you should.”

As the Tribe danced to “Let the Sunshine In”, she ran down to the stage. So did most of our age group. I didn’t dance and I didn’t smoke pot that night, but I left Central Park on a contact high of pride. Maybe my generation didn’t end war, eliminate racism, and create universal tolerance— despite all the anthems about peace, love and freedom now. But we tried. And we still had the motivation to try… to sit for half a day in the hope --but not the certainty-- of getting free tickets to revisit the first ever “American tribal love rock musical.”

(A few days later, Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton attended—although I suspect they didn’t have to wait in line.)

Leaving the park, we caught up with Ivan, who remarked that forty years ago, a woman alone could not be walking here alone at night without fear, but now there were several visible ahead of us, leaving the concert.

As we passed the Temple of Dendur, I was struck by a variation on that ubiquitous Mastercard slogan: “Cost of tickets to ‘Hair’: zero dollars. Time spent to get tickets: five hours. Watching your generation let down their ‘Hair’ 40 years after the first time: priceless.”

(The reception to Hair in Central Park was so good last summer that the same cast is now performing it on Broadway and the tickets will cost you from $37 to $122!)


YiayiaVicky said...

Thanks Joan, I wish that I could have been there. Of course I wish that I had been allowed to see it in Hollywood back in the day. My father forbade me to see it and I, like the obedient daughter, never went.

I always love reading your blog, but this one really made me smile.

Anonymous said...

Great blog Joan, I felt like I was there.

lactmama said...

Just catching up on your blog. I was impressed with the seniors line in the Park sounds great.
You shudda gone on stage, Joanie - you cudda been a contender.

thanks for your ever clever views on life.