Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The original version got it wrong

My wife and I attended a performance of the musical Hair on Saturday night at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Since that's her favorite show, I got us a pair of tickets as a Christmas present for her. (Always love the Christmas presents where the giver gets to be an equal beneficiary.)

We really enjoyed ourselves, especially at the very end. After the bows, the cast waved us up on stage, and anyone who wanted to could go up and dance to a reprise of "Let the Sunshine In." (Incidentally, we had a debate about the lyrics of this song -- is it "Let the Sunshine In" or "Let the Sun Shine In"? I actually like the second one better, but the first one is correct. However, the poster you see above lists it the second way. It's a mystery.) Not only was it glorious just to be on the stage, in among the sets and actors, singing this epic song, but we also happened to be dancing next to Kate Beckinsale and Columbus Short, with their respective spouses.

However, just before the very end was perhaps our most puzzling moment.

See, my wife and I are both most familiar with Milos Forman's 1979 film version of Hair, not the stage version, which debuted on Broadway in 1968. I've only seen the film once, about five years ago, whereas she's seen it countless times, enough to know the songs by heart. Neither of us had seen any other version.

And you know what, the original stage version does not have the dramatic punch at the end that the movie has. Nor does it have as strong a narrative spine as the film version, though we're speaking in relative terms here, since neither version is particularly heavy on plot.

Now, this could clearly be an instance of liking the first version of something you're exposed to better than other versions. I discussed that phenomenon at length here. But in most instances of remakes -- or in this case, film adaptations of Broadway musicals -- the essential plot elements are virtually identical. In Michael Weller's adaptation of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's book, there are some big differences -- differences Ragni and Rado were not pleased about, but that's their problem.

From all my previous understanding of Hair, the main character/protagonist is George Berger, played in the film by Treat Williams. He's the first hippie you're introduced to, and he's a touchpoint throughout, kind of like the gravitational pull at the center of all the hippies we meet along the way. The other primary character is Claude Hooper Bukowski, played in the film by John Savage. Claude is also a hippie, and he's got his own song about himself, imagining himself from Manchester, England -- even though he was raised in Flushing, NY. (A sample lyric from the song: "I believe in God, and I believe that God, believes in Claude, and that's me.") In the film version, however, Claude is a country bumpkin just awakening to the hippie movement, fresh into New York City from Oklahoma. Claude and Berger both have feelings for Sheila (Beverly D'Angelo), but keeping with the free love themes of the play, they aren't rivals for her affections, but rather, share each other. (Now that I've seen the stage version more recently, I can't tell you if there's an edge to their relationships in the movie.)

Throughout the course of an admittedly minimal narrative, Claude gets drafted to go to Vietnam. He attends a ceremony in which a lot of other young hippies are burning their draft cards, but he can't do it. In the film, however, when he's right about to show up to the military induction center, Berger takes his place at the last minute, leaving an innocent Claude to explore the new zest for life he's discovered, and possibly his feelings for Sheila. It seems that Berger believes he'd be able to survive Vietnam whereas Claude wouldn't, but that's beside the point, because Berger thinks he'll be able to get "Claude" disqualified from having to go. When it doesn't work out that way, the last thing we see, during the rousing reprise of "Manchester, England," is Berger in uniform, marching onto a plane for his deployment to Vietnam -- where he either actually dies, or where it's understood that he'll die. I don't remember exactly how the film ends, I just remember Treat Williams' scared but stolid face as he marches onto the plane, accepting the sacrifice he's made for Claude. It's a classic hero's sacrifice, one that I'm sure appears in many films -- it's too bad the only one I can think of right now is Armageddon, where Bruce Willis takes Ben Affleck's place at the last minute, as the guy who has to stay behind for the suicide mission of detonating the nukes they drilled into the asteroid.

But Berger doesn't have his Armageddon moment in the original stage play. In the original, Claude is the one who goes off to war. In fact, the last image in the show we saw on Saturday is Claude's still body, in uniform and perfectly straight, lying on an American flag. He went to Vietnam and he died.

It's a striking image, but it doesn't have the same impact as the end of the film. For starters, it means that Berger is basically a glorified bystander. He never makes a sacrifice for Claude, so why is he even picked out as the "main character," the guy we meet first? Berger's role as the main character is only important if he gets to make his sacrifice for Claude. Other than that, he's just another hippie who failed to convince Claude he should burn his draft card.

This is certainly a strange indictment to be making. Hair was a popular musical for 11 years before it made it to the screen, so for those 11 years, the only Hair anyone knew was Claude going to Vietnam and dying. I can understand why Gerome Ragni and James Rado were pissed off about the film version, which essentially says, "The original musical that everyone loves is not good enough as is. It needs to have more dramatic conflict and more of a heroic sacrifice in the third act."

But you know what? It's true. It may have been highly presumptuous for Michael Weller and Milos Forman to come along and change the musical, but their changes work.

But that could just be because a film and a stage show have different needs. On stage, you can get away with going light on plot. You can loosely connect a bunch of rousing musical numbers and lightly sketched out characters, and it's enough for a show. In fact, in a post-show discussion of other live theater we've seen, I told my wife about the musical Fosse, to which I'd gotten free tickets when I lived in New York. The show has no narrative throughline, but rather, is just a collection of stagings of Bob Fosse's most famous numbers (from such shows as Cabaret, Chicago, All that Jazz, etc.). It's no wonder I didn't think very highly of that show. But the point is, you can get away with it. It's theater, and different rules apply.

In a film, you need a strong narrative. In most cases, anyway. The characters need to have characters arcs, journeys. And I think Forman and Weller detected that George Berger needed to have a journey. He needed to start out as a free-loving hippie who's fun to hang out with, but is defined by his lack of commitment. He needs to start out as charismatic but unreliable. Over the course of his journey, he must develop the personal fortitude to stand up for something, do something for somebody else, and suffer the consequences of his new enlightenment.

That's what gives a loose story about the liberal revolution of the 1960s its emotional core. I don't want to call the stage version "unemotional" -- after all, Claude going to Vietnam and dying is certainly tragic. But it's predictably tragic. Berger taking his place is one of those unpredictable things that teaches you something about the capacity for goodness in the human soul.

Because we had such a fun time at the Pantages on Saturday night, with such a joyous climax, this discussion is largely academic. I don't want you to think that we sat there all night, criticizing the choices made by the person who originally dreamed up Hair. The real takeaway from the show was the energy, the rousing production numbers, the soaring vocals ("Aquarius! A-quaaaa-reeee-ussss!") and the cast breaking the fourth wall in such delightful ways, including running up the aisles and occasionally interacting with the audience. Not to mention the fact that were actually up on stage at the very end.

But I do think it's interesting to consider how, at least in the case of Hair, a dramatic work can be a work in progress, possibly not having reached the definitive version of itself in its original form -- even if that original form is staggeringly popular. Instead of being annoyed, Ragni and Rado should have felt proud that Weller and Forman embraced the raw materials they provided, and tried to make Hair the best version of itself it could be.

We should all be glad they did.


Sebastian Gutierrez said...

Huh? Are you serious?

The movie butchered HAIR! All dramatic punch that was felt in the finale when the Tribe sings "Let the Sunshine In" to you was lost when they turned it into something as trite and cliched as a mob protesting in front of the White House.

I love the current version of HAIR touring the country; saw it twice when it was on Broadway, and that moment where you get up and dance on stage is more of an emotional punch than anything in the movie. At least on stage, you're feeling what the show is all about, Love, Peace, Freedom, etc. In the movie, you get none of that, because it is so ham fisted.


Also, they fuck up a lot of the songs in the movie. Just sayin'...

Vancetastic said...

An interesting perspective, Sebastian -- and one I cannot possibly share because the movie version was the first version I saw. Therefore, there was nothing to butcher. I really do think you are inevitably going to like the first version you see of something better than subsequent versions, exactly for that purpose -- the first version creates the standard by which you judge other versions. By liking the creative choice to have Berger take Claude's place, I am inevitably going to dislike a different interpretation, even if it was the original one.