NBC has announced that the next musical it will turn into a live television event is “Hair” (“The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”). The first Broadway show with a rock and roll score, it debuted fifty years ago (after four months off-Broadway), right smack dab in the middle of the generation gap, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement. It boasted the most diverse cast of any show in history, and despite not drawing the usual upscale blue-hairs who make up the vast majority of Broadway audiences, it ran for 1,750 performances, and has been revived and produced around the world many times since.
I was too young to see “Hair” in its first production, but with some of its songs cracking the Top 40 (especially “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” by The Fifth Dimension, which won a Grammy for 1969 Record Of The Year), my parents bought me the original cast album. A few months later, my cousin Marc, who lived in Paris, came to visit and gave me the album with that city’s original cast, singing in French. I listened to them over and over until I knew the lyrics to every song in both languages (making that the peak of my French-speaking ability).
In 2009, when the show got a big Tony-winning revival on Broadway, I took my then-15-year-old daughter, who was similarly entranced by the music and visuals. When the show was over and the cast invited the audience to join in the “Let The Sunshine In” singalong, she raced from our seats in the balcony to sing and dance onstage while sporting an ear-to-ear grin.
Coincidentally, a couple of weeks before NBC’s announcement, I downloaded the 1968 cast album from iTunes. My wife and I each put it on our iPhones and listened, only to be disappointed. The uniqueness of a show that featured rock music had worn off because so many others have followed in the intervening five decades — and wow, do the songs not hold up. While a few advance the story and have interesting lyrics, many others are made up of nothing more than random buzz words of that era strung together.
At least a couple of those tunes will be problematic for NBC. Can the network really air a song with these words?
I’m a colored spade, a nigger, a black nigger, jungle bunny, Jigaboo, coon, pickaninny, mau mau…
Ironically, most of those words were in the classic Richard Pryor/Chevy Chase job interview sketch on “SNL,” but that was in 1975, an era that was in many ways much more progressive when it came to broadcast TV (e.g. Norman Lear’s sitcoms). Since then, too many parts of our culture have regressed, to the point where those phrases might guarantee a tune in from Trump’s core audience, but will create too much negative feedback for the network, even in the context of the show.
In case that’s not enough, there’s this song, which will make the right-wing tight-asses at the Family Research Center spit blood:
Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Masturbation can be fun. Join the holy orgy. Kama Sutra, everyone!
Let’s not forget about the nudity. I doubt that when NBC does its version, it will contain the famous scene where many of the characters strip (but not all — Diane Keaton was in that first cast and famously refused to remove her clothes). It wasn’t salacious, just mildly shocking — but even so, the closest network television ever got to that was Jimmy Smits’ naked butt on “NYPD Blue” and some side-boob on the Emmys red carpet.
This will not be the first time someone tried to bring “Hair” to the screen. In 1979, Milos Forman directed the movie version, with John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo, Nell Carter, and Ellen Foley among the cast members. But screenwriter Michael Waller changed so many elements of the show’s script that two of its creators, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, made public statements of how much they hated it. Having seen it, I concur.
Can NBC make “Hair” family-friendly enough to draw in a huge audience? That would mean excising too much of what made the show special in the first place, so I doubt it. Besides, you’d need to have similar conditions in the country, with a very unpopular president, Americans at war for no reason, and racial strife in the headlines on a daily basis. Oh, wait.
Then again, maybe I’m viewing “Hair” differently because I’ve changed so much. There was a time when I had hair down to my shoulders; now it doesn’t even cover my scalp!