Masaryk university brno faculty of education

Reception of publi c audience

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3.3 Reception of publi c audience

3.3.1 New York

Sova summarizes the public reaction as that “the play ran at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater and at the Cheetah all without complaints about the language and nudity of the play and it opened on Broadway again without official interference” (107). The Biltmore production “quickly became a hit with standing room sold out completely at all performances” (Nash 60) and never was the target of full-scale protest.

It was nevertheless frequently criticized as “subversive propaganda by supporters of the war in Vietnam” (Wollman, MacDermot, Trask 55) and the “Don’t put it down” number was couple times interrupted by “infuriated patrons who interpreted the number as disrespectful to the American flag” (Jones 251). Wollman, MacDermot and Trask also cite some original cast members about strong reactions of public audience when “at each performance at least two people went “Hmph!” and walked out” (56).

3.3.2 Touring companies

Touring companies were less lucky, running into “roadblocks of community standards” (Jones 252) in numerous other U.S. cities. Sova specifically describes how Hair was banned from military theaters for being unfit for military theaters “beacuse it could cause trouble” (108). Language of the play was modified for productions in Indianapolis, South Bend and Evansville and nudity was eliminated. Censhorsip occured also in St. Paul, Minnesota and San Antonio, the production in Los Angeles was stopped by police and officers were allowed to arrest cast members. The reactions to musical resulted into “legendary banned-in-Boston proportions” (Jones 252), with the Boston company facing criminal charges for obscenity in 1970, and Wollman, MacDermot and Trask also speak about efforts to ban musical in Chatanooga 1971, with both examples resulting in cases before U.S. Supreme Court (55).

3.3.3 Young audience

Wilmeth and Bigsby mention that Hair brought a new audience into the mainstream music theatre” (443), Wollman, MacDermot and Trask write that “Hair attracted a significant number of young people and a greater proportion of African Americans than attended most Broadway shows” and justify it by musical’s youthful orientation, topical themes, eclectic score and young, interracial cast (54). Authors also add some statistics – 46% of audience were under thirty and 7% were black under thirty while the average Broadway audience was “merely 3,7 % African American and predominantly middle-aged” (Wollman, MacDermot, Trask 55). Nash points out that this generation gap – reflected in the musical as well – influenced differents in opinions of audience, with younger audience liking it and seeing the message of it and older being insulted and seeing no message at all (61).

Nash assumes the reason of audience to come was “curiosity about nudity and hippies and what was going on that day, genuine interest in the show, or visit of average theatre-goers just because Hair has been pronounced a hit and was considered the thing to see” (60). The success depended according to him on critics’ reviews and advertising. But he also admits that a box office success cannot be reached without audience liking the piece. According to Nash’s survey, 70% liked Hair very much (61).

As Everett and Laird write, many of the songs from Hair resonated with popular music audiences and “Hair remains one of the few Broadway musicals to achieve chart status in the years since the rise of rock’n’roll” (239). Many of the songs still remain pop standards, although the musical itself has aged.

3.3.4 Negative reception

Nevertheless, one part of audience did not find Hair as going far enough and this were the representants of New Left movement. Wollman, MacDermot and Trask write that “the intellectual side of the counterculture did not respond well to Hair, they thought it was too simple and did not express the Left’s sentiment in the right way” and also were scared of the degree of commercialism in portraying the hippie culture (56). This has to be taken into account, but Hair undoubtly mediated the issues to middle-class audience by “presenting token representatives of various contributing strands in the Tribe that was already dominated by their “own kind” and governed by their own values in a purer form” (Knapp 156) and that should not be forgotten.

3.4 Hair’s influence

3.4.1 Musicals

According to Miller, critic John J. O’Connor wrote that “no matter the reaction to the content I suspect the form will be important to the history of the American musical” (n. pag.). And Hair’s greatest influence was undoubtly in artistic circles, as Everett and Laird put it “Hair – and its commercial success as well - generated a spate of imitations, billed as rock musicals” (239) from which the first were Your own thing and Salvation and the latest Rent. The only major rock-music success of the period was nevertheless “British in origin, Jesus Christ Superstar, 1971” (Wilmeth, Bigsby 445). Wilmeth and Bigsby also write that “legacy of Hair essentially lies in three areas: rock musicals, nude musicals and minority musicals” (444). It also paved the way for the non-linear concept musicals, as mentioned in the first chapter – bookless shows dealing with a way of life or a social-political issues (Wilmeth, Bigsby 445) in 1970’s – “Company, A Chorus Line and others” (Miller n. pag.).

As far as musical’s relationship to American society is concerned, Smith and Litton write that in the sixties the popular art was commandeered by young people and to them live musical theatre looked and sounded archaic (297). “Musical theatre didn’t have too much to say about a very unfanciful, unromantic, unsentimental world” (Smith, Litton 298). Hair was exceptional and according to statistics brought young people to musical again. The tunes of Hair could “pass for rock for the legions of suburbia and that is why a kid could go to see a Broadway show without violating the musical dictates of his peers” (Smith, Litton 293).

Significance of Hair to black actors was another societal related feature. There were those who suggested that the musical has nothing to do with black people. The black intelligentsia asked the relevance of the muscial to the civil rights issue. King admits that the “message of musical was not about being black, but black actors nevertheless had a chance to express their opinions on stage” (124).

Hair’s influence also translated into other areas - Wollman, MacDermot and Trask write that “hippie turned into another marketable product (Wig City produced an instant male-hippie kit for 29.95)” (57).

3.4.2 Social change

Otherwise scholars doubt that Hair could have provoked any kind of strong social change. Wollman, MacDermot and Trask develop the thought that Hair was laudable but harmless. Antiwar activists acknowledged that “Hair was not written for them, Hair was written about them and allowed old playgoers to participate in the protest movement of the sixties for a while” (57), Hair and hippies was not “particularly shocking to the average spectator of 1968, even despite the nudity, and the political and social agenda was no different than that espoused by the actual New Left” (61). Jones agrees that “Hair only painted – mostly authentic – portrait of hippie life” (251) and similar thought is represented by Wilmeth and Bigsby – “it sought to represent hippie life style, albeit a sanitized version in which no one died of exposure or drug overdoes” (443). Hair became – according to Smith and Litton – a vision of the under thirties’ life-style as fantasized by the over thirties (293).

A lot of damage to show’s impact was beyond anyone’s control. Goldman remembered that “when Hair opened on Broadway, Johnson was no longer a subject for satirical venom and retired, hippies were still in existence, but the movement wasn’t what it had been, there were dozens of shows dealing with the same subject in New York and peace talks were started about Vietnam war” (n. pag.).

3.4.3 Hair revivals

Nevertheless not only Hoekstra thinks that Hair is such a relevant piece of theatre that its relevance can be seen by time distance – its message does not have to be updated or rewritten to make the connection to contemporary issues to audience, wars and the fight for equal rights is something American society struggles with even today (n. pag.). People may just respond more strongly to different topics than in the sixties. To him the most relevant message is the one about love and peace and the strongest and most important influence can be seen in that Hair made audience think about it.

Strength of Hair influence in any form can be practically seen in its revivals. Maybe because of the love and peace theme, maybe because of beautiful songs, maybe because of commercial success, Hair is being revived from the sixties on. Hair was successful all over the world, the script was translated into many languages and it also still catches interest and popularity among new and young audience, again and again. According to Rado, Hair has never played in China, India, Vietnam and most African countries (n. pag.).

The last Broadway revival took place in 2009 and was a huge success winning Tony award, with Cavin Greel as Claude; the last West End revival took place in 2010. As Coveney puts it, “Hair is one of the greatest musicals of all time and a phenomenon that, I’m relieved to discover, stands up as a period piece” (n. pag.).


First half of my hypothesis can be regarded as confirmed. No other fact is clearer than that authors of Hair were inspired by the American society of 1960’s and that their intention was to portray it. Whether they wanted to shock the audience to get famous or achieve commercial success is not excluded.

But the second half – whether American society was inspired by Hair, influenced or changed in turn – was not confirmed. Hair handled topics that already were among society for quite a long time. Hair shocked in the sense of musical theatre, in new way of dramatization, in being the first rock muscial and in being the first musical to make its way through off-Broadway to Broadway. In this point of view it really managed to provoke change in further musical development.

But not in society. It was even authors’ explicit intention – to teach middle calss theatregoers about hippies – nothing about change mentioned. Strong negative critics talking about dishonoring New Left thoughts forgot that Hair was just a musical aimed to be watched by middle class. People and experts liked it, saw it even more times, songs became hits, hippie costumes became commercially succesful, but nothing changed.

Nevertheless the love and peace thought is immortal, especially today, when hippies are not an everyday topic, Hair revivals have a monopoly to inform about their values and inspire their audience. And maybe the strongest influence Hair had on society, on audience, was that it forced to think about it deeply. To be honest, what other musical is so moving than Hair in its final “Let the sunshine in” when the cast really seems to transmit some beams to audience and you can feel the emotions floating in the air.

I would like to end my conclusion with a thought borrowed from Wilmeth and Bigsby who mention that “art changes individuals and individuals change society” (19). Maybe that is where we should look for Hair’s influence.


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