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

By Harry Haun
April 1, 2009

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."

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Caissie Levy
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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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A vet of Brooklyn and Lestat, Swenson was undaunted by the musical demands. "This show is hard to sing. It's pretty rangy. The first song [the aforementioned "Donna"] is like being shot out of a cannon. It's really fast, and it goes extremely high. It's hard to breathe and run around and dance like a fool the whole time."

His Berger is the hard-driving force of the show — an utterly out-of-control, hedonist hippie kingpin. "Just crazy" is Swenson's simple take on the part. "He's one of the best characters I could ever hope to play, a loose cannon. He's all about The Moment and the party and the fun. His energy comes from a place of love, but he's still pretty dangerous. There's a lot of improvisation with the character."

Which allows him leeway to ad-lib a lot. "It's nice because it keeps the show fresh. Sometimes, you get bored doing the same lines and movements every night, but Hair is so loose we improvise. It's different every night. We get a lot of return people coming already, fans who come back and back just to see what the changes are."

Bryce Ryness, who physically looks like he should be playing Jesus Christ Superstar instead of Woof, had a saintly perspective on the role. "I like that I get to tell the truth," he said of the character. "I don't have to have a lot of noise to my performance. I don't have to accept these weird conventions. I just have to walk out and say a very simple line that I think that, at the end of the day, everyone wants to hear: 'We are all one, and I love you.' That's a huge blessing as an actor. When a show is about love and peace and forgiveness and understanding, to say to the audience, 'I love you, and I'm glad we're here together' is a great thing."

The out-of-nowhere showstopper, "Frank Mills," proved a personal tribute for Allison Case, who arrived at the party in post-show afterglow: "The audience was giving us just as much love as we were giving them, and it was such a beautiful, beautiful night. We're so grateful and excited."

She was pleased to hear that the daughter of the woman who originated her role of Crissy was among the audience. In fact, Martha Plimpton was conceived when her parents (Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton) were in the first company of Hair. Carradine recently revealed he did a little Oscar-winning work on the side during that run by writing a love song, "I'm Easy," that was used years later in "Nashville."

Kacie Sheik, who plays the tribe's knocked-up earth mother, Jeanie, arrived sans child. "I left it in the dressing room," she laughed. "I left all three bellies in the dressing room. There's an Act I belly and a naked belly, and there's an Act II belly."

Sheik likes Jeanie's good heart most about the character. "She takes care of everyone. She puts them first. Everything is for the good of the tribe with her. She has eternal love flowing from her. To feel that every night is overwhelming."

Darius Nichols, Hair's formidable Hud, left his hair in the dressing room — a seven-inch Afro — and was barely recognizable off-stage with his natural burr cut. "It's funny, most people don't recognize me," he admitted. "When I come out of the stage door, it's very easy for me to kinda sneak away if I want to.

"I love the comment people make that he's so unlike me, but Hud is in there somewhere. I just had to find him. He speaks his mind, and he reads a lot, but at the same time, he doesn't take his anger out on the other members of the tribe. Basically, he is talking about a lot of bad experiences with Caucasians, but he doesn't take that out on his friends. He takes people as who they are. And he's such a flirt — with everyone, on stage and off. I try to pick out someone in the audience I know is probably going to blush and go for her. That's become one of my favorite moments."

Sasha Allen, in her Broadway debut as Dionne, set the bar for the show with a soaring rendition of "Aquarius" right at the beginning. "It's a hard song," she conceded, "but it's so empowering, and it really brings the audience in." [Amen!]

The glittery procession of first-nighters included Melba Moore (Dionne from the original stage Hair of 1968), Annie Golden (Jeanie in the Milos Forman movie "Hair" of 1979), Audra McDonald (there for her 110 in the Shade co-stars, Swenson and Nichols), Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel, cartoonist Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley, astrologer-chanteuse Shelley Ackerman (who told Caroline Kennedy she was sorry Kennedy wasn't her senator), Elaine Stritch, music advisor Rob Fisher, Cabaret's Joel Grey, Tim Robbins, Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry (checking out the competition in the direction category?), Lily Rabe and Jill Clayburgh, Michael Feinstein, drag queen Bebe Zahara Benet (in splashy star-spangled attire), Diane von Furstenberg, composer Frank Wildhorn and ex Linda Eder (at separate tables), Blythe Danner, "Today" co-host Hoda Kotb and The Seafarer Tony winner Jim Norton (who struck critical gold last week as the Finian in the Encores! edition of Finian's Rainbow.