Tomorrow marks the sad closing in the West End of the gorgeous, gleaming, shaggy musical Hair, and it will be a bleak day for anyone who, like myself, has an inexplicable crush on men with long locks, an interest in theatrical history, and an unceasing desire to be transported to an altogether happier place.
To say that I loved Hair would be an understatement. I was practically beside myself before it even started as I looked around the theatre to see a number of exquisitely dressed aging hippies, clearly there for old time’s sake and a million miles away from the usual West End audience. Then there were the clothes, the men, the songs! There is a reason why practically every advert on television borrows from this musical, and why you find yourself recognising ‘Aquarius’ or ‘Good Morning Starshine’ without even knowing it – Hair is crammed full of classic songs and yes alright, it doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is executed with such vibrant energy that it just doesn’t matter. And, oh, that ending: words cannot capture the intense joy I felt dancing on that stage with my dear friends, singing our hearts out and hugging everyone in pouncing distance. Not many shows give the audience an opportunity to look back at themselves and see the theatre as the actors do – it was an inspiring moment.
As a theatre geek I was also intrigued by the opportunity to witness an important piece in the history of theatre and censorship. It has always baffled me that as recently as 1968 the Lord Chamberlain had the power to censor theatre in the UK, and that the office did so with remarkable vigour. Until the abolition of this right most of Hair’s content would have been unthinkable on the London stage, but after the Theatres Act of 1968 Hair was finally free to spread its love. With this in mind, I was interested that after all that hoo-ha Hair just doesn’t feel very shocking anymore. So they protest against war, simulate sex, get naked, do drugs: but doesn’t everyone these days? Perhaps that’s part of the problem with it now – where once it shocked and thrilled with just a few words, now watching a bunch of people sing about smoking pot actually seems a bit cheesy.
Yet Hair’s closing, some four months before initially planned, marks a low point for the West End, commercially and artistically. It is widely assumed that Hair is closing because ticket sales were not what was desired. Now, I hate to state the bleeding obvious, but poor ticket sales are hardly surprising when they were so absurdly expensive! I could not reconcile myself to the irony of a bunch of hippies singing out ‘against the man’ to an audience that had paid up to £65 each for the pleasure of sitting in a nice red velvet covered chair. Hair is young and sexy, and they tried to get this across with their appearance at Latitude Festival; however most young people have neither the means nor the inclination to fork out that amount of money to sit in a theatre, and the show simply never seemed to take off with the right crowd.
I also despair that a show that looked and sounded so gorgeous should fail to attract audiences, while the utter insult to taste, music and theatre that goes by the name We Will Rock You continues to play to full houses. It has been suggested that the West End audiences just couldn’t get on with a musical that dared to invite the audience to share in the be-in, whether that was by having some shaggy man shaking his crotch in your face, a flower-child handing you a daisy or the stalls emptied for the grand finale. I hope we are not as small-minded and dull as that, although I do think that Hair highlights the differences between Broadway and West End crowds. The truth is watching a musical on Broadway is like nothing else on earth. New York audiences are noisy, passionate and brave, and think nothing of getting up and dancing in the aisles (whether invited to or not), while by contrast, Brits are more stoical and shy, who want to be performed at rather than feel like part of the action.
The talented Broadway cast tried to get us to let our hair down and have a good time, but I guess they didn’t have as much success as was hoped. Seeing Hair was an experience I will never forget and for a while it brightened up London. Without it the West End will return to being a sea of the same old, never-ending shows populated with winners and losers of televised talent contests. Oh goody.