They Got Life: Tribe of Hair Prepares to Spread Love and Peace on Broadway

News   They Got Life: Tribe of Hair Prepares to Spread Love and Peace on Broadway A band of hippies is currently readying to take over the Al Hirschfeld Theatre when the new environmental staging of the 1968 rock musical Hair returns to Broadway March 6.
Gavin Creel, Bryce Ryness and Will Swenson
Gavin Creel, Bryce Ryness and Will Swenson Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Hair, which was the first indoor production produced by the Public Theater (at the time known as the New York Shakespeare Festival), received a fresh concert staging in 2007 in honor of the 40th anniversary of the landmark musical. The sold-out Joe's Pub in the Park concerts spawned a critically acclaimed summer encore run at the Delacorte Theater in 2008 that resulted in three extensions.

Under the direction of Diane Paulus, the buzz-generating production is now aiming for a Broadway opening at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on March 31. Playbill.com had the opportunity to catch up with the cast and creative team of Hair during their first day of rehearsal.

Paulus' acclaimed al-fresco stagings of Hair in Central Park were ultimately an in-town tryout for the rock musical's Broadway return. "Bringing Hair back in 2007 was sort of the test of 'Does this material work now?,' and I think the answer was 'Yes.' Also, bringing it back last summer in an election year [showed] how the show [still] resonated," Paulus explained.

Diane Paulus
photo by Aubrey Reuben

The New York native added, "To live here and feel the city of New York come out for the show and demand the show and want the show, it was bigger than theatre. It was about some kind of community coming together and taking over and saying, 'We want to feel alive, we want to make change. Watch out, here we come.' . . . I really feel like as a director, you look for these moments when something you do in the theatre actually hooks up with the larger culture. That's what I dream of: When theatre can finally be bigger than theatre. And this is one of those meetings of time and material and audience and subject matter." When Hair made its Broadway debut in 1968, songs like "Aquarius," "Let the Sunshine In," "Good Morning Starshine" and "I Got Life" became an indelible part of the soundtrack of the baby boomer generation; yet, Hair continues to speak to new generations. Composer Galt MacDermot noted, "The interesting thing about it now is that it has a slightly different effect. In the 1960's it was designed and had a shock value — there were a lot of four-letter words. But that doesn't mean anything anymore. But what does mean something is the relationship between the kids, the affection and the dedication to living better. And it's moving." Actress Caissie Levy, who will play Sheila in the Broadway revival, spoke of the momentum behind the musical. "I think on the surface it's the idea of these young people rebelling against the norm that obviously appeals to young people. But I think when you go a little deeper, especially in today's climate with what's going on with Barack [Obama], I feel very connected to what's happening politically right now. And I think on that level people are responding and will respond when they come and see the show."

One of the magical things about Hair's recent engagement was its Central Park backdrop. Paulus spoke of the challenges of bringing that energy and sense of community into a Broadway house. "The idea is really that the hippies have gotten on a bus and they've driven up to 45th Street, and now they're living at the Hirschfeld Theatre," Paulus said. "Basically, my idea was that they're taking over the Hirschfeld Theatre. Why I made that choice, what felt so important to me about the Park and that setting, was that the audience and the performers were under the same umbrella, under the same universe. The moon above you was the same moon above an actor on stage. When the wind blew on your hair, it blew on the actor's hair, too. So you were unified, there was no division.

"The most important thing is that the audience, even though they're sitting in red velvet Broadway chairs, have to feel like they're in the same universe as the people on the Broadway stage. The way we are doing the show is that we are in the Hirschfeld, all of us, all 1,400-hundred of us, and the ceiling above our head, which by the way is a constellation in the Hirschfeld Theatre, is our ceiling. It's not the proscenium arch, it's the ceiling and the architecture of the theatre," added Paulus.

Karole Armitage
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Almost everything is going to be new," said choreographer Karole Armitage. "It's going to be so different in the physical space, people are going to be in the balcony, in the house. It's not going to be on a stage like before — it was an enormous stage. There will be some things, of course, on the proscenium, but it's going to be a very environmental piece." As part of the rehearsal process for Hair, Paulus worked to ensure that the young cast grasped the importance of the time in which it was written, so that the musical didn't become a hippie fashion show of bell bottoms and peace signs.

"It was really [about] getting to the inside of what those clothes meant, or what the peace sign meant, and encouraging the actors to always be real and truthful. My whole approach for the process with the actors was very strict with how they would approach the work, how they would bring justice to this period and time, and how they would relive it," she said.

Paulus collaborated with composer Galt McDermot and book writer James Rado to streamline the original script of Hair for the 2009 Broadway production.

"It's a version that's been crafted especially for this moment in time. We've cut a few songs; we've changed some of the scenes. We really crafted it in its tone and presentation to be the most powerful for this time and place," she said.

Choreographer Karole Armitage, who also lent movement to Passing Strange at the Public and on Broadway, described setting the expressive physical realm of Hair. "I had a very instantaneous reaction that what Hair needed was an absolute felling of spontaneity and individuality, and what I should do with the actors was give them almost more movement concepts and let them turn them into things that really felt true to who they were as people, as characters, as movers, so that everything would feel literally as if it was being made up. I didn't want steps, I didn't want numbers — I wanted it to feel as though it was their own self expression at all times."

Key to the infectious nature of Hair is the cast of relative unknowns who comprise the tribe. Will Swenson, who leads the tribe as the free-spirited Berger, extols the Public Theatre for "bringing into the cast 15 or maybe 20 relative newcomers to the New York theatre. A lot of kids were still in college, or just out of high school — one of them was in high school. What that brought to the original concert and subsequently to all our productions is this raw energy that these cast members have.

"They're so not jaded," he laughed. "Actors tend to be once you've worked for a while, but they're so full of legitimate, real passion and energy and love. They want to perform and are so connected to wanting to tell the story that it's exactly the energy that Hair needs. So as a result, everyone had the same goal, everyone felt the same energy and connected with the importance of the message of Hair."

Throughout Hair's Central Park run, audiences were not only singing along, but calling out to the cast. While many productions are careful to establish a fourth wall between the cast and the audience, tribe member and Hair poster girl Allison Case welcomed the responses.

"We felt like it was such a blessing, like, 'They really hear us. They really hear us enough to yell out how they feel.' And the way it's always felt is not like 'We're performing for you guys,' it's more that we're all in this together, and we all become a tribe every night with this new audience. It's exciting to be able to relate to an audience. It's an experience every night for all of us, and it changes.

"It keeps growing. It feels like a movement more than a show, and we feel grateful to be a part of it," Case said of Hair's journey to Broadway. Tribe newcomer Caissie Levy looked around and concluded, "It's a lot of beautiful people spreading a lot of beautiful love around, and I think people need that right now."

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The complete cast of the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair features Tony nominee Gavin Creel (Claude), Will Swenson (Berger), Sasha Allen (Dionne), Caissie Levy (Sheila), Allison Case (Crissy), Kacie Sheik (Jeanie), Steel Burkhardt (Electric Blues Quartet), Andrew Kober (Margaret Mead, Dad) and Darius Nichols (Hud).

Tribe members also include Lauren Elder, Allison Guinn, Anthony Hollock, John Moauro, Ato Blankson-Wood, Brandon Pearson, Paris Remillard, Maya Sharpe, Theo Stockman, Tommar Wilson, Jackie Burns, Kaitlin Kiyan, Nicole Lewis, Megan Reinking and Saycon Sengbloh.

The iconic musical features book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot.

Hair's design team includes set designer Scott Pask, costume designer Michael McDonald, sound designer Acme Sound Partners and choreographer Karole Armitage. Kevin Adams will be the lighting designer.

For tickets phone (212) 239-6200 or visit Telecharge.

For further information visit HairBroadway.

The Al Hirschfeld Theatre is located at 302 West 45th Street.

<i>Hair</i> lyricist-librettist James Rado and composer Galt MacDermot
Hair lyricist-librettist James Rado and composer Galt MacDermot Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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