What ‘HAIR’ Is Doing To A Bunch Of Otherwise Ordinary Canadian Kids...
Well, not quite ordinary
BY KASPARS DZEGUZE Photographs by Horst Ehricht
IMAGINE. IF YOU CAN, this early-morning confrontation in a silent hallway on the 11th floor of that great colonial institution, the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Early morning means some time between 11 o'clock and noon, when the exhausted cast of Hair awakes and shows the first undeniable signs of life — such as searching for cigarettes. At one end of the corridor, there's an old dowager guest from the hinterland. She sails down the hall, her sharp eyes ever ready to identify all forms of moral decay and, what's this, what's that extraordinary figure coming along the wall toward her? There, from the other end of her floor, stumbles a weary performer, swathed only in a bedsheet as he navigates from one Hair suite to another in pursuit of a cigarette. The matron fixes the Hairy with her moral-decay eye and intones, “Young man! If you choose to make a spectacle of yourself in public, thaf can’t be helped, but you could have the decency not to drag your sheets along the ground. Other people might have to sleep on them, too.” So this young fellow. bursting with a 20-year-old's obedience and respectfulness, picks the sheet up off the ground, folds it neatly under his arm, and continues down the hall. Stark naked.
Usually, the 14 boys and 15 girls in the Toronto company of Hair — known as the Mississauga Tribe: every Hair
company is assigned the name of an Indian tribe — could not afford to be so open in their games. When Hair, the tribal-love rock musical and Broadway smash hit, had opened rehearsals for the Toronto production, its authors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, had brought most of the cast to live with them in this string of suites at the Royal York, and they were all under a constant strain. The moment they had been accepted into the cast of Hair they had been lifted into the public eye — and had been changed. They were no longer just kids with hair, and with or without regular employment. Now, they were walking symbols of the teenage apocalypse of drugs, sexual freedom — and hair — that haunts the dreams of middle-aged parents.
But if the Mississauga Tribe isn’t really a collection of freaks, forever floating just off the ground on a drug-induced cloud, and even though they're mostly kids from the middle-class homes of southern Ontario, they are nonetheless special in one way. They’re talented — talented in a distinctly fresh and honest style. The version of Hair playing at Toronto's Royal Alexandra theatre has been judged the “purest” of any of the 20 or so productions being staged around the world. The purest, because in Toronto the play is co-directed by au►
thors Ragni and Rado the way they want it directed, and not the way that’s most expedient for the show’s ubiquitous publicity agents. The purest, because the members of Mississauga Tribe are mostly semi-amateurs and, for them, the play is something other than what it is for the professional casts elsewhere in the world. The Mississauga Tribe consists mainly of musical, theatrical kids, kids who have been singing in groups, or performing solo in bars and nightclubs, kids who have made records that never moved in the charts — kids who were living the Hair life before the play caught up with them. That may be why the theatre critic for the New York Times, Clive Barnes, could describe the Toronto production as the “hairiest” Hair of them all. And the greatest.
PAUL RYAN is a 22-year-old musician, a bespectacled young man who might once have found his place in a novel by Dostoevski, pacing the moonlit streets of St. Petersburg in his dark-blue maxicoat. Paul and his brother Clint walked off with major parts in the show, and they speak for many of the 1,000 kids who answered Hair’s open-audition call. “Hair attracted me for what it means, and because it lets me talk to the older people who need to hear these things,” Paul says. “The show’s not for kids — most young people know what it stands for.”
Not all the performers showed up for that reason alone. They went because, well, there aren’t that many open calls for big productions, and because it’s hard to make your living performing in clubs with these ever-forming, ever-dissolving pop groups.
Everyone knew that Hair was about the U.S. draft, drugs, knocking the Establishment — all the pastimes and preoccupations through which the young bring themselves to their anguished parents’ notice. Everyone knew that Hair stands in the same relation to youthful protest against adult insensitivities as Bertrand Russell stood in the assault on entrenched and heedless political power. And everyone knew there was a nude scene, too. Not much knowledge but, along with their youth and, always, the omnipresent hair, perhaps it was enough to shape the 29 performers into the family, the Tribe, that Ragni and Rado saw as the foundation of the play’s drama and meaning.
Frank Moore is a 23-year-old native of Bay de Verde, Newfoundland, and the veteran of many club dates and television appearances. “Hair,” he says, “is a Newfie opera: it’s an organic play, and Newfoundland is an organic place. They’d really dig it.” Between putting out records and putting on the press,
Moore also recalls the beginnings of the Mississauga Tribe’s family feelings:
“There was less than a month to prepare for the preview opening, and we had to get to know each other in a hurry, so we used various exercises to cut through the formalities. One of the ‘trust’ exercises made a single person stand inside a circle of six or seven others. The person in the middle would close his eyes, make his body go rigid and fall, fall straight out, trusting that, whoever was standing where he fell, would catch him. He wouldn’t know who that might be, because the circle was always moving. And he couldn’t cop out and let his body go limp, even though he’d have to be halfway to the floor before someone could catch him. It really worked, at least to make superficial sorts of contacts. But we had to let the exercises go as we moved into the real rehearsals, and that hurt us. We need them, even now.”
Hair seems to give each member of the cast exactly the energy he needs to project himself into the show, to participate on exactly his own terms. And when everyone is appreciated for what he can do, then the conventional standards no longer apply, and visiting the Tribe can be disconcerting. The old criteria, which granted importance and power to some individual, are irrelevant here. In the same way, the production must remain a disappointment to those who expected a show with the kind of professional values that demand a Callas to sing Aquarius. Nathan Cohen, theatre critic for the Toronto Daily Star, tumbled into a bin filled with pedestrian critics when he observed that “ . . . the people in Hair should have . . . attractive figures.” The show had already answered him. One of the cast’s urchins marched up and down the aisles bearing a placard that said: “Bob Goulet is an 8 x 10 glossy.” Any kid might belong to Hair, whether his nose juts out too far, or her breasts don’t jut out far enough.
By the time Hair had opened for two weeks of preview performances, there was enough Tribal feeling to prompt authors Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni into opening their unofficial haven for those kids who didn’t want to go home after performances. Paul Ryan recalls that the Royal York suites were filled with an ever-changing stream of cast who “slept wherever there was space. Nobody kept to any specific rooms, and people drifted from suite to suite, doing whatever moved them . . .”
A female screech of hilarity echoes through the decrepit, paint-peeled, plaster-chipped dressing rooms backstage at the Royal Alexandra. “The reporter here wants some nifty stories,” the voice laughs. “Anybody got some nifty stories?” George W. Lee IV comes up and
beams. “There was some crazy things goin’ on up there, man, but we’re not gonna tell you.” It’s partly true, partly funny, and everyone laughs. Ryan wrinkles his nose. “Nifty stories? I guess people are just dying to find out that we had continuous orgies up there. Too bad for them . . .”
Rudy Brown, the 24-year-old clown from Guatemala, joins the conversation, but he is not in his usual flip mood. “People are really disappointed after they see us, because we’re not vulgar, or vile, or animals. People are surprised we can talk well, that we don’t smell. And each night, we’re out there saying, ‘We’re just like you, we’re all together,’ but that’s not what they want.” His eyes flash. “That’s not what Hair means to them. Now, if we really did masturbate on the stage, right up front there, then they’d love it. They could go home with something to talk about over breakfast.” Rudy Brown turns away.
HAIR IS AN unusually robust and active show. The Hairlets swing down over the audience on ropes. They clamber up ladders and scaffolding, and jump into one another’s arms from 10 feet in the air. It’s not surprising then that almost everyone wears a flesh-colored bandage somewhere on his sorely taxed anatomy. Sometimes, says 16-year-old Tabby Johnson, it’s all too much. “They broke two of my toes, all of them trying to rush up to the front of the stage.” Tobi Lark, a gospel-singer-turned-pop-star who was reborn as a Hairlet, strained her ankle so severely her leg had to be encased in a plaster cast that stretched to her knee. But Tobi went on performing, on crutches, for a week, towering above the rest of the cast and adding a certain visual force to her renditions of Aquarius and Great God Of Power. The Ryan brothers’ roles require them to take part in all kinds of on-stage roughhousing, but they are hemophiliacs and it was necessary to assign other actors to perform their more robust activities.
As for the nudity in the show, attitudes vary with each one of the kids — and with each of their parents. Undressing has been optional for everyone. No one is penalized for not disrobing, but those who remain clothed do not stand up for the finale of the first act. “I’m so shy that I just barely let the man I’m messing with look at me,” declares one of the lead singers. Another girl insists, “I wanted to take my clothes off opening night, but my mother said if I do, it’s out of the house.” Sigh.
There are usually more boys standing in the nude scene than girls. The girls may feel, as Avril Chown does, that “people in the audience get their kicks
seeing kids, really young, fresh kids, taking their clothes off. I don’t see why we should oblige them. A relationship with a man is so much more meaningful than 30 seconds nude on stage.” Avril, whose parents left the decision up to her, says, “That’s the most difficult part of the show. It can really be beautiful, but the beauty of the body isn’t what’s getting across to the audience. I didn’t take my clothes off at the start, but it got to be such a hangup that I just had to do it a few times, to get free. But the body’s still a personal thing, not for 15-million people to see.” Tabby Johnson, 16, had no problems about the scene at all: “My father told me that if I went on nude, he’d come on stage and spank me.”
As a group, the most surprising thing about the //a/rlets is their normalcy. Some are even very shy, and most of them are sensitive, tolerant people. They’ve had some precious times together. On New Year’s, at a quiet party, they loitered on sofas, exhausted or zonked, sat on rugs and cushions, eating a bit, and talking, vaporizing a few substances for kicks. Gerry Ragni, a big, wildhaired man, tells Kid Carson that Carson is the best Berger he’s seen in any production across the world, and Carson sort of caves in a bit, overcome, with the most childish, innocent smile crossing his face. He can’t think of anything appropriate to say, so he just punches Ragni gently on the arm. “Really, Gerry? Oh man .. . you mean it . . .” (Carson, despite Ragni’s confidence in him, was fired by the Toronto management of Hair shortly after this. His offense, the management claimed, was “unprofessional conduct.”)
For the Mississauga Tribe, Hair is a spiritual thing. Rudy Brown says, “You have to live Hair, because it’s spiritual, and you don’t turn spiritual things on one minute and off the next, like water from a tap, the way they try to do in church.” A slim, quiet, 25-year-old girl in the cast says Hair has given her greater religious feeling than anything else in her life. At the end of the show, in the number called Flesh Failures — or, as it’s better known, Let The Sunshine In — about a third of the cast is conspicuously weeping as Berger makes the sign of the cross over his buddy Claude, who was killed in Vietnam after refusing to burn his draft card. It’s the same every night. Claude lies on a black blanket. The urchins’ eyes are red. They exhort the audience to Let The Sunshine In.
Many people in the audience do realize soon after the show starts where the kids are at. They play along with the performers, who come right into the audience. Occasionally, someone in the front row won’t give Berger back his jeans after he’s dropped them on some
middle-aged lady for safe-keeping during the show. One woman removed one of Paul Ryan’s moccasins as he dangled from a rope above her husband, then tried to get out of the theatre with it. That’s all in fun. But there are the others, too, and they’re not fun at all. There was a man in the third row who took out his lighter and tried to burn Carson while he was sitting in the audience, doing his act. There was former cabinet minister Paul Hellyer, who just could not crack a smile, and there was the senator who’d come all the way from Ottawa to see the show and then could recall only that they used “that word” over and over.
For some theatregoers, Hair is profoundly moving. In the U.S., some people have seen it 15 times. And the conclusion? “We’re all messengers,” Rudy Brown decides, pointing to the whiteplaster angel that’s tethered over the stage. “Messengers, saying that if people don’t get their heads together, it’s all over for us. Look, it’s nothing new we’re saying. The draft, Vietnam, pollution, the dying institutions aren’t front-page news any more, but they’re news in our head. Some of the kids still draw the line when they step off the stage, but what’s on stage is what they want to do. And they’ll discover themselves and become what Hair is, and never come back to this world.”
Now, the audience is waiting, just as the affluent theatregoers await the first four-letter word in Paris, Tokyo, Düsseldorf, Belgrade, Copenhagen, Amsterdam — more cities all the time. At the first electronic screech, the whole cast, all the //«/Hets freeze in their tracks. The music is working on them, getting through to those on the aisles on the ground floor, in the two balconies, and those in the latticework of ladders and scaffolding that envelops the stage. Slowly, they begin to respond to the electronic cry. First one, then two, and then all, they’re heading for the stage with the deliberate ritual gait of priests.
The electronic voice summons the kids with the authority of a tribal-chieftain’s bellow. Only it's a steel voice, the coiled string of a guitar from which the message ripples to churn an electronic pilgrimage through dozens of transistors, scores of semiconductors and a cluster of transformers and capacitors to emerge and give voice to the drumming felt of the loudspeaker. All the kids have come together, forming a circle, holding, clutching by the waist or shoulders, waiting to invoke the magic of hair. Their singing, dancing circle revolves with the tread of some ancient, forgotten tribe and not with the dollar-smooth choreographed steps of a Broadway show. The Mississauga Tribe's ring of union is forged again. □
Are all those freaky kids exploding on stage in Hair really freaky? Most of the 15 girls and 14 boys of the Toronto company are talented, serious semi-amateurs from middle-class homes — among them (from top) Colleen Peterson, Lynda Squires and Carmen Litke