PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Hair — Is That a Daisy in Your Rifle?

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01 Apr 2009

Gavin Creel, Will Swenson, James Rado, Diane Paulus and Galt MacDermot at curtain; guests Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs and Ginnifer Goodwin.
Gavin Creel, Will Swenson, James Rado, Diane Paulus and Galt MacDermot at curtain; guests Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs and Ginnifer Goodwin.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The Age of Aquarius dawned again on Broadway March 31 at the Al Hirschfeld, two blocks south of the Biltmore where the two previous editions of Hair were housed.

The granddaddy of all pop-rock musicals — by Galt MacDermot, 80, the late Gerome Ragni and James Rado, 76 — landed with an unbridled force and exuberance that gave new meaning to the phrase "revival meeting." When it was over — almost by rote, certainly ritualistically — many first-nighters joined the tribe on stage in dance.

"It's so great to be old enough to see a revival of the revival of Hair," beamed a blissed-out Rosie O'Donnell, one of the many high-profile celebs who were part of the opening-night "be-in." "I know every note of that score," she crowed happily.

The star of Hairspray, Harvey Fierstein, came out for Hair as well. In point of fact, Fierstein said, as a lad of 14, he actually auditioned for the show, using its plaintive hit ballad, "Frank Mills." He and Phoebe Snow, both carried away by the excitement of the moment, coaxed Kathie Lee Gifford on stage for some extra-inning gyrations. They may still be dancing. The curtain never came down. Buckets of daisies strewn on the revelers on stage were as close to a button as the show came.

Nine-time Tony winner Tommy Tune, who's touring his way to Broadway in a one-man show that celebrates his 50 years in show business (Steps in Time), arrived at the theatre younger than springtime, with a nosegay of psychedelically colored daisies that he democratically distributed to worthy first-nighters. Of course, it didn't survive "Donna," the first assault of Berger (Will Swenson) who charged into the audience, "deflowered" Tune and stashed the bouquet in his shredded loincloth.

Tribal cavorting constantly spilled off the stage and into the audience. There's lots of traffic (and writhing) in the aisles. It's not the best show for sneaking off to the john.

Most Contented Customer of the Evening — a crowded category on opening night — had to be The Public's Lion King, the hirsute Oskar Eustis, who staged a three-night concert of Hair in Central Park two years ago, and celebrated its 40th anniversary with a 2008 full production there, and recruited a raft of producers (Jeffrey Richards, Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Jerry Frankel, Jed Bernstein, The Nederlanders, et al) to bring the show to Broadway for what now appears to be a long winter's nap.

Eustis was in full sway all evening, rocking back and forth in his seat to the insistent, pulsating music. At one point, he literally danced in the aisles (a right heretofore reserved only for over-stimulated critics). Yes, he led the charge on stage.

At the festive party at Gotham Hall following the show, Eustis put an end of any doubts one might have about his true feelings for the show. "I love, love, love Hair," he declared with a kind of majestic pride. "I have a long history with Hair. When I was 14 years old or so, I ran away from home. I was in England, and I saw Hair, and I got up on stage and danced with the cast. It was a hugely romantic moment for me 38 years ago."

That encounter drove him to rekindle his affection for the show over an inordinate amount of contemporary naysayers. "I always felt it was a great musical that wasn't fully appreciated. The music we've always known, but the power of the story has kinda vanished in the collective memory. I'm happiest about bringing this back because I think we've revealed what is emotionally powerful about the story. Galt MacDermot said that he thinks this production is much more dramatically powerful than the original production. Originally, it was more like a provocation, and the distance of time has allowed the melancholy to really come out of it. There's a beauty in our ability to look back on it that's different when it first opened."

Eustis' secret weapon in transplanting Hair on Broadway was his choice of director Diane Paulus, who, abetted by the lively choreography of Karole Armitage, shaved the age off a play that seemed locked in the days of Vietnam-protesting and made it speak to our times. The artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Paulus is making her Broadway debut with this and listing toward a new career.

"I hope so — that's my desire," Eustis admitted. "We had been working together on a couple of other projects, and I knew she had the combination of downtown credibility and yet real commercial smarts. She worked with Disney, and she worked downtown — that's a very unusual combination, and it turned out to be exactly right."

Paulus was reveling at what she had brought off. "Oh, it was a completely electric evening," she trilled. "It was unbelievable energy — an unbelievable audience took it to a whole other level."

Not only did she direct the show, she reshaped it to make it more palpable and accessible to a modern audience. "I worked very closely with Jim Rado over the past two years to craft a version of the show that is really unique for this production. I was really interested in the story being moving and evocative, touching people in a different way. I think, in '68, the show was primarily shocking. It was shocking to see naked people. It was shocking to see people with long hair. Those things don't shock us anymore. But we can be moved by what that culture was about, what those young people fought for — that's what I wanted to bring alive."

Rado, too, was dazzled by the evening. "I'm used to watching Hair and being part of new productions, but I loved working on this production, which was the culmination of our hopes of how it could come back. I can't believe Hair is here again. I'm trying to find various things that ground me, that makes me know that this is reality and not a dream."

The triumvirate at the top of the tribe is a casual ménage a trois involving the conflicted Claude, the freefalling Berger and the granite-tough Shelia.

"I love Sheila," said the actress playing her, Caissie Levy. "I love her passion, her fire, her vulnerability, her sense of right and wrong. She's a liberal woman — definitely a revolutionary for the time in the research that I did. A lot of women were not at the forefront of anti-war movement, but she very much is. I feel she's a pioneer."

[flipbook] As for the free love flowing between her and two tribal beaus: "Berger is actually in the middle of the Oreo because Claude and I love him so much. It's an interesting thing for us to play and a compelling relationship for the audience to watch."

New with the Broadway transfer, Levy's playing Sheila for the first time, but she convincingly fits right in. "We're one big happy tribe, and we're definitely a unit up there, so I'm glad that reads."

Gavin Creel, the Claude of Broadway, also missed The Public's park productions, but he did make the tribal cut for Hair in Chicago, the five Encores! performances and a one-night-only Actors Fund benefit. He is particularly fond of the songs Claude has been dealt: "I think 'I Got Life' is probably one of the greatest numbers a person could perform, and the way it's staged is amazing. It's all about engaging the audience and being in the tribe and getting people to 'Wake up! Let's use that life! You got all this time.'"

And what is it like to look out into the audience at a rolling sea of bobbing heads? "Amazing," he said. "At the beginning of the show, at the end of 'Aquarius,' some people put their arms in the air and started shaking them. I saw them, and I just put my hand in the air. It was, like, 'Oh, my God! I'm with you! I'm with you!' I think maybe they saw me and I saw them. That's what this whole show's about. It's about including so that, when you're sitting in the audience, you don't feel like, 'Oh, it's audience participation.' That's not what I'm out there doing. I'm out there trying to go 'You feel this too, don't you? I feel it.' I could cry I'm so blissed out by that."


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