Musical's vibe fits with '00s
by Kerry Lengel
Dec. 28, 2008
The Arizona Republic
If you tune in an oldies station and hear Good Morning Starshine -
"Sabba sibby sabba, nooby abba nabba" - it might be hard to remember
just how big, how revolutionary Hair was when it hit Broadway in 1968.
Especially if, you know, you hadn't been born yet.
But even though none of the actors in Arizona Theatre Company's new
revival was around during the '60s, they don't see the show as just
an exercise in Baby Boomer nostalgia. To them, America in 2008 looks
much like it did 40 years ago. The nation is divided by war, both
real and cultural, but also buoyed by a new hope for change.
"We don't have to invent any of that," says Morgan James, the New
York actress playing Sheila, chief political activist in the "tribe"
of hash-smoking free-loving draft-dodging hippies.
Raised by a pair of hippies herself, James says she inherited the
peacenik values embodied by Hair.
"When I go into those protest scenes, it's not a stretch," she says.
"It's very much a part of my heart."
Arizona Theatre Company is pulling out all the stops for a production
they expect to be one of their biggest hits in years. Artistic
director David Ira Goldstein flew to New York to cast the show and
made sure to hire top talent behind the scenes, including Abe Jacob,
the "godfather of sound design" - who worked on the original Broadway
show 40 years ago.
In the beginning . . .
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was created by James Rado
and Gerome Ragni, two actors with one foot in the counterculture and
one in the mainstream. Rado had originated the role of Richard
Lionheart in The Lion in Winter on Broadway, but he knew Ragni from
the experimental-theater scene, where they starred together in an
off-Broadway musical protesting capital punishment.
Although they cast themselves in the starring roles of Claude and
Berger - two points in the bisexual love triangle at the heart of the
play - they weren't genuine hippies, already being (gasp!) older than
30. But they believed in the hippie message of peace and love, a
message that they thought was being distorted by the establishment media.
"We were writing about the moment, we were writing about the war,"
says Rado, who has had a hand in several Hair revivals over the
years. "We were putting onstage what was so emotional and powerful
out on the streets. We wanted to extend that message and that feeling
Ragni (who died of cancer in 1991) and Rado wrote the book and the
lyrics and brought in Canadian composer Galt MacDermot to write the
tunes that would become an indelible part of the late-'60s
soundtrack. Among the recording artists to score hits with the Hair
songbook were Three Dog Night (Easy to Be Hard), the Fifth Dimension
(Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In) and, of course, the baritone Oliver,
who sang that saccharine version of Good Morning Starshine in 1969.
1st rock musical
In the era of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Doors, those songs
may have sounded more pop than rock to some. But they weren't just on
the radio, they were on Broadway, which had its own musical tradition
and conventions. Just as an invasion of contemporary pop culture,
Hair was a shock to the system.
"It was the first rock musical," says Joey Calveri, who will play
Berger in Phoenix. "Without Hair, we wouldn't have Rent, we wouldn't
have Tommy, we wouldn't have Jesus Christ Superstar."
Of course, the music wasn't nearly as iconoclastic as the message.
Here was a piece of mainstream entertainment that not only protested
the Vietnam War but paraded the sexual revolution - from a song
called Sodomy to the famous all-cast nude scene - in front of the
buttoned-down middle class.
Goldstein, who's directing the local revival, first saw Hair in
Toronto in 1970.
"It was very much about the shock value of people saying and doing
things onstage they they'd never done before," he says. "It was a
huge cultural event. Issues surrounding Hair went to the Supreme
Court. It was relevant, it was controversial. It was a huge deal."
Controversy inevitably fades, however, and Hair is no exception,
especially after the entire flower-power era was relegated to the
status of nostalgia.
"As with a lot of things that are very steeped in period details,
there's a period of 20 or 25 years where it just seems dated,"
Goldstein says. "Then, after that, you start to feel that those
details are what make it authentically of its time. It feels like
Hair has come around to its moment again, 40 years on."
It's not that the current cultural moment is a rerun of 1968. Free
love and acid trips are more of a "fantasyland kind of thing," says
Kyle Harris, 22, the University of Arizona alumnus who plays Claude for ATC.
And although the nation is once again embroiled in an unpopular war,
there is no draft to dodge.
"That has been the hardest thing to relate to," Harris says.
To help his actors imagine just that during rehearsals, Goldstein
brought in a draft lottery from 1968 and had each male cast member
call out his birthday, to find out whether he would have been called.
Even in the hypothetical, it was an emotional moment.
"That was such a scary experience," Harris says. "What would I have
done back then?"
Other issues feel much more present for the artists in the show (who,
predictably enough, tend to fall on the liberal side of the political
divide). Gay rights is a particular example, given the passage of
constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in Arizona and California.
"The things Hair talks about - racism, the environment, war - are
still with us," Goldstein says. "We had a moment in time (in the
'60s), and perhaps we didn't achieve all that we could with what we
had. There's a sense of regret and that the message is even more
powerful now than it was then."
Just as important, the actors say, the hopeful side of the hippie era
also continues to resonate.
"Our first rehearsal was Election Day, and it really decided which
direction our show would take," Calveri says. "Would we do a show
that's celebrating, or a show that's still protesting and angry?"
You can guess the answer.
"We have a lot of Obama supporters in our cast," he says.
Rado, who has carried the Hair torch of peace and love for 40 years,
feels the same.
"Other presidents have used that cry for change, but with Obama
there's this wonderful feeling of hope in the air. . . . Maybe this
is the dawning of a new age."
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 602-444-4896.