Beads of Aquarius

A new age of Aquarius | Features | Culture

The Broadway production of Hair, which is coming to the West End.Features

Michael Coveney danced on stage at the hippie musical Hair, and his love beads are back out for a revival

'It was still powerful, still good, but it didn't have the joy." So says Paul Nicholas, one of the original London cast members of Hair, of the last London revival in the tiny Gate Theatre in Notting Hill five years ago.

And that was the first London revival since 1993, when Michael Bogdanov's Old Vic version, with an unknown John Barrowman as the hippie conscript Claude, placed ushers handing out flowers in the stalls and the cast, who wore more blue denim than kaftans, waving condoms on stage during the mass sleep-in.

So it's clear the new celebratory production opening at the Gielgud Theatre – which comes direct from last season's New York revival in Central Park and Broadway – is asking us to tune in and turn on to a period piece where the Vietnam war is still running, Aids is unheard of, "masturbation can be fun" and black girls sing that "white boys are delicious".

The "joy" thing is what I remember most about Hair, not the very brief semi-lit full frontal nude scene at the end of the first act. ("Could you see if any of them were Jewish?" asked Jack Benny.) It opened in London exactly one day after the Lord Chamberlain was banned from censoring the stage (27 September 1968) and a few weeks later, when Broadway's first (and last) "tribal love rock musical" rolled down Shaftesbury Avenue, I got up on the stage at the end and danced, fully clothed, with Mr Nicholas as well as Annabel Leventon, Marsha Hunt and Peter Straker.

Well, Princess Anne and John Lennon had already clambered up there and jigged about, so I didn't see why I shouldn't. We were all a little bit hippie in the late 1960s: it always amused and delighted me that the lovely Russian lady who ran the Financial Times's New York office when I worked on the paper in the 1980s had taken over on Broadway as the character who sings the exquisite "Frank Mills" ballad.

The original Broadway cast album had been on my gramophone turntable in college for two terms, and I loved the songs and the music even more than I loved Pink Floyd and the Beatles. This music, written by a quiet, straight, Canadian church organist turned jazzer called Galt MacDermot, was something completely new and liberating in the theatre.

Except that, as critic Mark Steyn pointed out, the Age of Aquarius that was dawning was over by lunchtime and was only really heralding the Age of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who took up the challenge of fusing musical theatre with the Top 20 a little more efficiently. Hair was a glorious mess.

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