So this weekend, my wife surprised me with an early birthday present : tickets to go see HAIR, one of my favorite shows of all time. I’ve often told people “It’s a tossup between HAIR and Hamlet,” and let them work out exactly what sort of similarities they share that they could both be at the top of my list :).
For those unfamiliar with the “60’s tribal love rock musical” you may not realize that it’s loaded with Shakespeare references. I thought I’d had them all:
- An entire song called “What a piece of work is man”, from Hamlet.
- The big finale song finds the tribe singing “Eyes, look your last….arms, take your last embrace….” which are Romeo’s last words to Juliet.
- This crescendoes into “the rest is silence! the rest is silence! the rest is silence!” which is, of course, from Hamlet.
Well last night I spotted two more. Maybe I’ve just missed them in the past, or forgotten them. Or maybe they’ve been cut in other productions, who knows. But:
- Claude (our tragic hero) breaks into “O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt….” when it seems the world is getting him down. Hamlet again.
- After the “What a Piece of Work is Man” song, Berger, who plays something of a Mercutio in this story, just goes ahead and refers to Claude as Shakespeare directly.
That combination – a play whose second half is one long bad acid trip, intermingled with liberal Shakespeare references – continues to show the infinite variety in what Shakespeare had to say. If you come to the show with the wrong attitude, you’re going to be in for an uncomfortable night. Berger takes his pants off and begins climbing over audience members within the first five minutes. Most scenes involve liberal demonstrations of simulated sex, in every conceivable combination. The entire cast famously gets naked at the end of the first act.
You could, as some people do, get offended by all that nonsense and walk out at intermission. I’ve seen it happen.
Or you could pay attention to the story of Claude, caught between the responsibilities of his reality, and his desire to be with his tribe of dreamers. The hippies get their draft cards. What to do? Berger burns his. Will Claude? What will happen if he doesn’t?
I’ve known for a long time that the creators of HAIR – Gerome Ragni and James Rado – were accomplished actors, with a Shakespeare background. You have to be, you don’t just toss in entire songs lifted directly from the text without some foundation in the subject.
What I learned this weekend, though, is that Ragni was actually on stage during Richard Burton’s Hamlet! I immediately went hunting through the credits ( I have the film at home) to see if I could spot him. Unfortunately, according to his bio he is listed only as “attendant (uncredited). So I don’t get to see him on video. Or, I may have, and just can’t recognize him.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t particularly love much of the second act, that whole “bad trip” sequence I think goes on too long and is too difficult to follow this far removed from the days when everybody in the audience could relate to what Claude was experiencing. But I adore the story, I adore the music, I adore how they weave Shakespeare and Hamlet throughout. Note that above I’ve linked the movie version, which is different in a number of ways from the play. Better, in some ways, if you ask me.