"As a director, I've always been interested in finding a connection with the audience," Paulus said at the recent Tony nominees press reception. "That's been so important to me in all the work I've done… choosing projects that really connect with an audience. I'm just so thrilled to be doing that on Broadway. To find that connection with an audience — a really vibrant kind of alive feeling — on Broadway is the ultimate experience for me as a director."
In fact, the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of Hair has audiences on its feet nightly, not only to give a standing ovation. Audiences are flooding the stage of the Hirschfeld to dance and take part in the musical that often feels less like a Broadway show and more like a political movement.
"I think the focus for us has always been 'What can Hair do that's special?,'" Paulus said. "I think Hair is very special. It's a non-traditional kind of show in that it breaks certain boundaries and expectations of what the formula of theatre is. I just think it's so exciting that 41 years later from when it was created, it's functioning on Broadway. Audiences are sophisticated — they're able to understand the story in a new way. They're able to see a show that isn't just a strict book musical and bring their own meaning to it."
In addition to its pop-rock score of hit songs, Hair is known for its parade of bellbottomed, longhaired, free-loving youths who smoke pot and celebrate their bodies. While some directors might capitalize on the show's built-in cultural familiarity, staging Hair posed challenges for Paulus, who wanted to explore the motivation beneath the hippie drag rather than offering Broadway audiences a museum piece. "I was very wary of that sort of Urban Outfitters mall kind of tie-dye sixties look," Paulus recalls. "So any decision we made was about stripping any of that camp away, and it started with the cast that we put together. We wanted people who were not actor-performers playing hippies, but rather [individuals] who really felt like they connected to the issues in the show, connected to the material and made me believe that this was their lives on stage. Every step of the way it was about trying to do justice to what I felt was an incredible moment in American history of people caring enough about their country that they would voice their opinion."
Paulus also says the Hirschfeld audiences are a diverse lot: "[Hair is also] speaking to young people. This is what's been extraordinary to me. There've been teenagers coming to the Hirschfeld in their tie-dye, with their peace signs, with their flowers in their hair, as if this is a show speaking directly to them about their lives today. That's making me so excited about what Hair is doing as a revival."
Paulus also spoke about the throngs who rush the stage to join the cast at the curtain call. "I think all that energy just gets more built up so by the end, the audience just wants to release. They want to celebrate, they want to say 'I'm here. I've experienced this. I believe in this!' That just gives me so much pleasure. I'm just such a believer in joy in the theatre, and I'm just so happy that Hair is bringing this much joy to people."