Is ‘Hair’ still relevant?

When it first debuted in 1967, the musical about hippies reflected the country’s radical youth. In 2008, its second performance was outdated.

The comparisons between 2008 and the 1960s are too real to ignore: the unpopular war, the record-breaking presidential election and the candidate who promises to be the light at the end of the tunnel.

There’s a lot more where that came from.

In October 2006, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said the Iraqi insurgency tactics were “the Jihadist equivalent of the Tet Offensive.” Even President George W. Bush agreed, saying there was “certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election.”

This summer, actors performed Hair in New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. Some reporters think the musical is especially relevant in today’s tumultous political climate. This writer doesn’t agree. (Courtesy Michal Daniel)

Earlier this year, when Sen. Hillary Clinton lost grasp of the race for the presidency, she defended her alleged stubbornness by mentioning the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968. The comment made many supporters uncomfortable.

Add these comparisons to the fact that 2008 is one of the most politically-charged years for young Americans, and it’s no surprise that New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park chose to perform Hair this summer. It’s a musical that burst from the thriving “hippie” counterculture and burgeoning sexual revolution of the 1960s. During many performances, choreographer Karole Armitage commented on the likeness between Hair’s characters and today’s youth.

Hair, first performed in New York City in 1967, follows a group of young hippies as they get in and out of trouble, all the while belting out lyrics about free-thought approaches to current events, complete with never-ending pop culture references. Intended to shock, the controversial nude scene at the end of Act 1 became an appreciated and celebrated homage to the 1960s movement.

But above all, Hair is a musical rich in ideals, with characters that are too cliché to be taken seriously today. While the musical does cite Mitosis some pretty groovy ideas, there’s little about it that the average college student today can relate to.

On the surface, Hair is a musical assault on the status quo, which challenges long-standing moral ideals and the Vietnam War. It’s arguable, though, that today’s college students are the status quo, with the pressure of college being placed on them as early as their freshman year of high school. The characters of Hair – except for Sheila, a New York University student with a taste for civic liberty, are too counterculture to want to be part of any system, even an academic one. It’s a hard pill to swallow in today’s economy, where the importance of a college degree seems to grow daily.

But that doesn’t mean today’s college students are sell-outs. In a present-day America without notable countercultures, students remain unique – separate enough from the “real world” to maintain a sort of academic objectivity. That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone from this generation finding Hair’s then-provocative statements – a chorus of white women singing “black boys are delicious” – anything but a time capsule. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come as a nation.

The sexual liberation of the free love movement, arguably the most prominent theme in Hair, seems reckless to college students, a generation born after AIDS first reared its head in the 1980s. The drug use in the musical (the second act focuses on main character Claude’s trip after smoking a laced joint) just seems like another cliché about a generation that grew up under President Ronald Reagan’s “just say no” regime.

Yes, the characters in Hair and the 60s generation did break ground – possibly a reason why the musical is still being put on today – to show how other generations dealt with times like ours, when America’s government is out of touch with its own future. But that’s just it: they’re still part of another generation. The only characteristic we can truly relate to is having a glimmering hope that we might be able to change our nation for the better. Hopefully, the results last a little longer this time.

Tyler Antoine can be reached at

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