When it first opened on Broadway back in the Spring of 1968, HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was as equally radical and defiant as it was inclusive, embracing, and emblematic of the times it reflected.
Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot, the production was born from the womb of an America that was experiencing huge cultural chasms throughout the country; and it invaluably existed as the first true production that gave the then blossoming Hippie sub-culture both a face and a context that served as a bridge for mainstream America to peak inside that often misunderstood community.
The tale of a tribe of politically active, long-haired hippies living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War, HAIR focuses upon characters struggling to balance their young lives, loves and the sexual revolution with their rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society. Amazingly, it was the first rock musical to make a play for mainstream success on the Great White Way.
A product of the Hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the late 1960s and born during the Summer of Love fifty years ago, several of its songs became anthems of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement; while the musical’s profanity, depiction of the use of illegal drugs, treatment of sexuality, and irreverence for authority caused considerable controversy by using a racially integrated cast and introducing theatergoers a full-frontal glimpse of the burgeoning 60s-counterculture esthetic.
Despite mediocre reviews when it appeared Off-Broadway, HAIR was a big enough hit with audiences to win financial backing for a proposed move to Broadway. While this kind of move would later become more common, it was exceedingly rare for a musical at the time, and it was a particularly bold move for a musical with a nontraditional score. Equally significant is that these potentially shocking breaks from Broadway tradition didn’t turn off Broadway audiences at all. HAIR quickly became not just a smash-hit show that ran for 1,750 performances and spawned a 3 million-selling original Broadway cast recording, which was also unprecedented.
And now Bay City Players is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The Summer of Love with their own uniquely crafted version of this iconic musical, directed by Michael Wisniewski and set for performances from July 27 – 30th.
“The interesting thing about HAIR that made it such a ground-breaking musical when it opened is that it as the first true Rock Opera, plus it contained profanity, drug references, sexual references, and a scene with nudity that was shocking in what was then contemporary or modern musical theatre,” reflects Wisniewski. “Thematically it opened a lens on youths rebelling against the establishment, their parents, and the Vietnam War; but it also contained songs such as Air that was written and about the environment, and brilliantly crafted, as were all the songs. Another component that made it ground-breaking was the fact is was one of the first really racially blended productions, with 1/3 of the cast comprised of African Americans; not to mention its focus on women’s rights.”
“When HAIR opened in 1968 it was at the peak of social protest and civil unrest in the United States and clocked over 1700 performances, which was astounding for a musical like this at that time,” he continues. “And I think that the themes it touched upon still resonate strongly with what’s going on in today’s culture, so in a way this musical has come full circle.”
As is true with many fans of the musical, Wisniewski says his first experience with HAIR was through the soundtrack, which featured an unprecedented amount of 27-songs ranging from the controversial (Sodomy, Donna/Hashish, LBJ, Black Boys) to the unforgettable melodic lines of popular classics (Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine, Easy to Be Hard).
“We’ll be staging a faithful translation of the musical,” notes Michael, “and one of the signature characteristics that classifies HAIR as the first Rock Opera is that the story unfolds through the various musical numbers and there is very little dialogue in-between. I would compare it to a more contemporary musical such as RENT in that it’s a play about misfits and features 25 cast members, so there’s a lot of singing and different things going on that cause it to be structured very differently than a regular musical.”
“HAIR is truly an ensemble production in the sense that each of the characters comprise one singular tribe that are equally important, so even if a character has a solo, they don’t simply sing their song and go off and do what they do but rather return to the tribe, so each character is intermixed and none are excluded,” states Michael.
For Bay City Players production, cast members consist of Ben Beauvais as Berger, David Ryan as Woof, Samuel Kyle Wood as Hud, Conner Wieland as Claude, Brianne Dolney as Jeanie, Rachel Creed as Dionne, Ally Nacarato as Crissy, Natalie Slawnyk as Sheila, Tony Ray as Margaret Mead, Karly Laskowski as Hubert, and Marci Rogers as Ronny. Jeff List serves as assistant director, with choreography by Holly Bills and musical direction courtesy of Jan Sutherland.
“We’re fortunate to have a really good mix of experienced and seasoned performers and actors with some newer performers just out of high school, which is what you need for this play,” continues Michael. “Apart from giving the production a solid balance, the range in age differences doesn’t matter because hippies were hippies – some were teenagers that left school to become one and others were 30-years old who left their job to go become one.”
As for the many qualities about HAIR that make it such an enduring production in the lexicon of American theatre, Michael references its core zeitgeist. “It captures that whole spirit of the 1960s that cultivated the power of community – the notion of dropping out and creating your own reality. It conveys the strength of a tribe and how their unity collectively empowers them so that you understand why the 1960s were such a special time thanks to the brilliantly written construction of the play.”
Michael says his biggest challenge with staging HAIR is “keeping the flow of the show going so that the audience understands what’s happening, because there’s a lot going on from the opening with the Age of Aquarius, which is where we’re introduced to the members of the tribe, to the second act that delves into the heavier more societal topics. Another component that made HAIR groundbreaking is how at the end of the show the audience is invited to come on stage and dance with the cast in a type of ‘be-in’, which is a very important part and element to the entire notion of tribalism. Honestly, there’s so much going on in this show from beginning to end, especially with some songs that are very wordy clocking in at only a minute long that the cast needs to learn and execute. HAIR is an ambitious production and certainly no cakewalk to perform, so I’m glad we had such a good turnout for auditions.”
“Also, the White Elephant in the room whenever you talk about HAIR is the nudity scene, even though that’s not what the show is about,” stresses Michael. “People need to remember that nudity to the hippie culture was accepted because it was an expression of freedom. God made each of us and men were growing their hair and getting expelled from high school, so they moved into this subculture where the body was celebrated as being beautiful. The thing I want to impress is that with our production the five seconds of one number involving this we address by being suggestive – a sandal is taken off, or a piece of jewelry is taken off, or a vest is removed and held up. But it’s interesting to see how different directors and casts shave dealt with the nudity scene in HAIR over the years. In Copenhagen the entire cast walked in nude and got dressed once they hit the stage; and another group did the scene by holding up a big banner that said ‘censored’,” explains Michael.
Perhaps most sobering is the notion that 50 years after the Summer of Love the issues and topics raised in HAIR are still with us: The War Machine, issues of women’s equality, drugs and censorship, racial unrest – all swirling amidst a backdrop where many of these chasms seem to have grown wider.
Interestingly, Charles Isherwood, writing for the New York Times recently placed HAIR in its proper historical context: “For darker, knottier and more richly textured sonic experiences of the times, you turn to The Doors or Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix or all of them. For an open window of the sweet sound of youth brimming with hope that the world is going to change tomorrow, you turn to HAIR to let the sunshine in.”
Bay City Players production of HAIR will held on Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday, July 27-30 at Bay City Players, 1214 Columbus Avenue. Tickets are available by phoning 989-893-5555 or going to www.baycityplayers.com