NBC Canceled 'Hair: Live!' And It Will Go Down As A Big Missed Opportunity

by Michael Mahany | 2/6/2019 6:38 PM

The 2009 revival company of 'Hair' on Broadway. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Monday evening, NBC announced plans to cancel the upcoming production of Hair: Live. The plan to cut the Vietnam War era musical from their schedule this coming spring bummed out a lot of people, (this writer very much included).

“Live musicals are a part of this network’s DNA and we are committed to continuing that tradition with the right show at the right time, Co-Chairmen of NBC Entertainment Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks’ joint statement read. “Since these shows are such enormous undertakings, we need titles that have a wide appeal and we’re in the process of acquiring the rights to a couple of new shows that we’re really excited about.”

Many have also pointed out NBC’s decision likely also circled around its originally proposed air date. May 19th, it turns out, is also the scheduled season finale of ABC’s American Idol and the series finale of HBO’s Game Of Thrones — both of which are sure to be highly rated events and thus, tough ratings competition.

Really though, reading between the lines of the NBC statement, it seems to come down to one sad truth: the network got scared of its choice because NBC perceives Hair to be dated and not widely known.

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It’s clear the folks making these network decisions viewed their choices from a business — rather than artistic— standpoint. Due, assumably, in large part to FOX’s recent production of Rent, with its low ratings and relatively cool response from those outside the world of showbiz, it might’ve seemed to TV execs that “riskier" and “lesser known” show titles don’t equal out to eyeballs on screens.

That, however, doesn’t necessarily ring true, nor should it mean they should stop artistic musical endeavors altogether — especially ones already in the works.

The original 1969 Broadway cast of 'Hair'. Photo credit: David Thorpe/ANL/Shutterstock

Let me break it down.

Hair, which is set in the late 1960s, tells the story of a deeply passionate and politically active tribe of young hippies involved in the counter-culture movement against the Vietnam War, and the musical, when it premiered in 1967, paved a new road for rock and roll music on Broadway. It single-handedly progressed forward the idea of what musical theatre could be. 

Sure, it may not be the first musical most people rattle off when asked to name a show, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t widely known. Check this out:

In 1969, Hair was nominated for the Best Musical® Tony Award and won the Grammy® for Best Score from an Original Cast Album. The album charted at number one on the Billboard® 200 for three weeks — the last cast album to have done so — and the 1970 recording of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In by 5th Dimension stood at the top of the charts for six weeks and won Record Of The Year. Most impressively, according to ASCAP, Aquarius was the most played song on television and radio in all of 1970.

To be fair, those statistics are from almost half a century ago, but, they’re impressive nonetheless, and they set up a foundation for a lasting impact. 

Still don’t believe me? Have a look at the most recent revival: 

The 2009 cast recording ranked number one on the Top Cast Album chart and even soared to Number 60 on the Billboard 200® (an enormous feat for a musical in the late 2000’s trend toward streaming and digital music.) And, the revival company was nominated for nine Tony® Awards that year, won for Best Revival, ran for over 500 performances on Broadway, and had a successful national touring company.

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So, aside from the fact that these televised productions provide a myriad of job opportunities that now won’t happen — from professional dancers and actors, crew members, production staff, press and marketing professionals, and more — the mere mention that the decision to cancel the production was based around “wide appeal” pretty much assures the fact that NBC preemptively fell victim to its own unnecessary apprehension.

What should they have done, you ask? 

They should have taken into considering that production was already underway, fully committed to the executing it well, changed the air date, and performed the show. 

This is theatre— the show must go on.

And, all things considered, Hair, with the right direction, angle, and team could be a very relatable and exciting piece of theatre. The key is using the right people— and Diane Paulus, the television production’s original director was a great start. 

Paulus a TONY® Award-winning director and the Artistic Director at American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, most surely could have breathed new life into Hair to make it pertinent to today’s audience. 

The revival company of 'Hair' on Broadway in 2009. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Paulus’ own experience with the show itself could very well have played into a possible success, too. Since she developed the 2009 groundbreaking revival of Hair on Broadway, which originated prior to its transfer in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre through the Public Theatre company’s Shakespeare In The Park, Paulus understands first hand how and why the piece can be seen in a fresh light. Given the divisive political nature of the current times, a brilliant visionary like Paulus undoubtedly could’ve constructed an inspiring live-television revival of Hair, that could provide an eye-opening, even allegorical view into our society.

More broadly, however, Hair translates into recognizable and relatable life experiences. Its themes are correlative and universal ideals: compassion, love, respect — archetypal and quintessential motifs, that are identifiable, discernible, and, well, of “wide appeal.”

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Ultimately, if live musicals are truly in the “DNA” of NBC, then it shouldn’t be afraid of its own anatomy and framework.  It should be willing to take a piece like Hair and step into the unknown with the confidence of a leader.

There’s no doubt that TV and theatre have grown into big business, but lest the networks forget that theatre and television are first and foremost, art —and for good art to exist, there needs to be some risk.

The point is: keep trying to push the boundary, take a risk, and don’t be afraid to make some real art on live television.

Michael Mahany serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. He is also a professional actor, musician, dancer, and writer. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or click here to find out more.

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