Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better: part 2

Last week’s post was all about how the film version of Cabaret was much better than the original stage musical, although that musical was based on a play that was based on a book.

This time around, the derivative work started out as an off-Broadway musical that went to Broadway and then to film, so there aren’t any other layers to unpack. The stage show premiered in 1967 and hit Broadway the next year. It took just over a decade for it to make it to film, directed by a Czech immigrant to America, Miloš Forman. And, honestly, there’s a really good reason that he can relate to political protests in 1968.

Or, in other words, he showed how an immigrant can get a better handle on life in America than most Americans can and in this film, he nailed it.

But back up a bit. The original stage show was a pretty shallow review that only ever got attention because the cast got nude, they sang dirty words, and explicitly mentioned issues of race and vaguely protested the Vietnam War. That was pretty much it, and the thing really didn’t have any kind of plot beyond that, nor much of a real relationship between the characters.

Honestly, the script is a hot mess, more interested in abstract symbolism than in anything else.

But when this whole thing becomes a movie at the end of the ‘70s, Miloš gets what was going on in the ‘60s, and, bonus points, decides to take the approach of staging all of the musical numbers in real life. In other words, he’s going throwback old school — the exact opposite of the Cabaret approach — and, oddly enough, he makes it work.

Oh. Did I mention that part where the original stage show really didn’t have any coherent story? Right, I did.

This was the other big thing that this version brought to the table through two simple tweaks: Take the Lead Couple (a musical tradition), remove them from the hippie tribe, and make them the fish out of water (Claude and Sheila), then eliminate the concept of secondary couple entirely, and replace it with the rest of the core Tribe: Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie — any one of whom could have been in a couple with any of the others.

In case you’re wondering, this is the show I’m writing about.

Hair (1979)

Much like the film adaptation of Pink Floyd — The Wall would three years later, Hair begins in relative silence as our lead character, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), leaves his house in Oklahoma. It’s a foggy and probably very early morning. Sound and colors are subdued and muted as Claude’s father drives him to a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

We won’t know for sure until almost the last shot of the film, but this is most likely the summer of 1967, which tells us something else: Claude is no poor boy from the sticks, as his father insists on giving him $50 cash, in case of emergencies.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $390 now.

Claude hops onto the bus and sets off for New York City, and this is where the music begins as he gets closer to his destination. By the way, Forman makes the very interesting choice to have the camera track from right to left instead of the other direction. I don’t know whether he was just confused about American geography, but the tradition in film here is that right to left means going west, while left to right means going east.

So, in other words, to an American audience, the instinct is to feel like Claude is heading to California.

On the other hand, having come from Czechoslovakia, this may have been a very conscious choice on Forman’s part, representing a metaphorical journey to the west, from an oppressive, gray place to the land of freedom and color.

As soon as we hit Central Park and the opening number Age of Aquarius fully kicks in, we definitely explode in a riot of color in more ways than one. The entire cast of the movie was about as diverse as possible, and we pretty much have every ethnic group represented in the opening, with several interracial couples included.

Here, the costuming (and, naturally, hair) also manages to be spot-on, avoiding any of the usual media screw-ups when it comes to portraying the look of a fairly recent youth culture a decade after the fact.

There’s a lot to unpack in these opening six minutes, and they’re worth watching.

We’re a witness with Claude as he stumbles into this be-in in the park, and we also meet The Tribe — Berger (Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus), and Jeannie (Annie Golden) — who will become that all-important collective secondary couple.

Here, Claude also has his first vision of Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), clearly a member of the patrician class, as she rides with two chaperones. She and Claude spot each other, and both are clearly smitten.

There’s also a lot of magic going on, and one particularly delightful moment comes when two mounted policemen approach the group. Most of the flee, but a brave duo of dancers remains, and their movements seemingly control the horses, making the cops powerless. It’s a really nice touch along with everything else.

The choreography here and throughout is stunning, and I have to give a big nod to Twyla Tharp, who does remarkable work, and pops up onscreen several times. This was her first of five film credits, a small part of a very long and illustrious career.

It’s very interesting to contrast her choreography with Bob Fosse’s in anything he did, but particularly Cabaret. Fosse was all about control through the concept of isolation. What this means in choreography is that a dancer should have precise control of any particular part of their body at any time, right down to a fingertip or a toe.

This is why a lot of Fosse’s moves seem to be intentionally robotic or jerky, with emphasis frequently being given to, say, just the hands, or the way a dancer tilts their head. Compare the choreography in the clip above to this bit featuring Fosse himself, with Gwen Verdon, in the film adaptation of Damn Yankees.

On the surface, it may seem like those are loose movements, especially given the tempo and tune, but if you watch closely, they are anything but. And you can also see the emphasis of ballet in Fosse’s work.

Tharp’s work in Hair, in contrast, seems to defy gravity, and clearly combines influences from tai chi and gymnastics. The dancer’s bodies are loose and limber, and rather than clearly controlling themselves, they seem to be drawn along by external forces.

It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the film, in fact.

Now one thing about the original is that it has a bunch of character intro songs at the beginning that don’t really introduce the characters. Sure, they give an actor something fun to sing, but they didn’t really have any greater meaning. Here, they become background to the more important thing happening, which is actual character development.

One of the first and most important of these is right after Claude meets The Tribe. They ask him for change, and he wonders why he should give it to them. At first unmoved by their claim that Jeannie is pregnant and they haven’t eaten for two days, he finally tosses them what’s probably half a buck — about $3.90 now.

Now, one of the things that happens in the opening is that The Tribe comes across Sheila and company on their horses, and Woof sincerely asks if he can ride for just five minutes, because he’s never done it and he’s always wanted to. Naturally, they refuse.

But as soon as Berger realizes they have enough money, what does he do? He makes sure that his friend gets his wish. They rent a horse and go for a ride and, when they catch up again with Sheila and her chaperones, Forman puts Woof’s intro number to perfect use.

It’s a little ditty that I like to use as an audition piece and it’s called Sodomy. It has exactly 23 words in its lyrics. Five of them are references to sex acts, none of them involving missionary sex, and two of them refer to basically the Indian Big Book of Sex.

Naturally it scandalizes the two older women with Sheila, although it’s not clear whether she’s so upset. Still, the trio rides off, passing Claude. Moments later, the horse that Berger and Woof were on runs by rider-less, and the Tribe implores Claude to catch.

Remember: Claude is from Oklahoma, so he does, and takes the opportunity to show off some trick riding skills to Sheila, only to have them go one way at a fork in the trail while he goes the other. Another potentially intentional move by Forman: Sheila and company go right. Claude goes left.

The other intro numbers, which do have some powerful political content, come together during Claude’s first night in New York, after the Tribe has convinced him to hang out with him, then get him higher than fuck. In short order, the titles of these numbers are Colored Spade, Manchester, and I’m Black/Ain’t Got No.

The first one, performed by Hud and the people of color in the cast is basically a litany that throws just about every racist slur about black people right back at the white people, and Hud owns it here — clearly the original intention of the number.

It may seem un-PC now, but in reality it’s a clear and early example of “taking back the words.”

As if to emphasize that, Manchest is Berger introducing (and speaking for) Claude, and significantly all of the people of color vanish. Poof, instant erasure, as Berger describes Claude as being from Manchester, “England, England, across the Atlantic Sea.” It’s the American Empire in a nutshell.

Everyone returns and launches into the number Ain’t Got No, which is a litany worth repeating now, because it describes the true struggle that was going on at the time. It wasn’t about black vs. white. It was, and is, about have vs. have not.

After all, in this song, it’s all of the Tribe and hippies singing together.

Then morning comes, Claude wakes up, and starts to head off on his own. He’s about to leave when Berger notices a newspaper on the ground identifying Sheila, who is having her debutante party that very afternoon.

Side note: This means that she is probably sixteen. Since Claude comes to New York in response to being drafted, he’s probably not that much older. Pay no attention to the casting of actors who were 28 and 30 at the time the film was made.

But, again, Berger ignores logic and reason to help give a friend their dream. When Claude balks at crashing because he wasn’t invited, Berger replies, “Do you want to go to a party with me?”

And that’s the end of just the first act, which has already packed in a lot more character development, relationship, and meaning than the source material did in its entire length.

I could continue the deep-dive through the rest of it but that could easily turn into a 10,000 word post so, instead, I’d just urge you to see it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime — I’ll leave you to search it yourselves because I’m not trying to monetize.

But the message of this film, which comes through much more clearly than it did in the stage show, is far from dated. The struggle we’re in is one of greed vs. community, fear vs. love, and hatred vs. hope.

Just substitute the concept of forcing people to go fight in the Vietnam War with the concept of forcing them to go back to work during a pandemic because, economically, they have no choice.

The rich could always wiggle their way out of the draft, whether it was via student deferments, daddy knowing Congressmen (they were all men then), or bone spurs.

The poor, not so much, unless they were willing to do things that would ruin their lives in other ways, like pretend to be homosexual, or insane, or flee to Canada — although one of Jimmy Carter’s first acts when he took office was to pardon the so-called “draft dodgers.”

Kind of seems familiar now, though, right? Hole up in your well-stocked mansion with no worries about where the money is coming from, lobby your Congressperson, Senator, or Governor to end the lockdown — for the people who work for you and earn you your money — or fly off to your private island.

Or… go back to work without proper PPE, maybe via public transportation, without health insurance, while you’re taking care of your kids and your elderly parent, and take your chances.

Watch Hair, listen to the message, and then do something. And remember: in the film version, Berger goes full on Jesus mode in order to help his friends.

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