The rock musical Hair is still relevant 40 years later

The rock musical Hair is still relevant 40 years later

When Hair hit the stage in 1967, people were protesting in the streets, political unrest was prevalent and discussions over what constitutes a “real” relationship were taking place in churches and in the streets.

Fast forward 42 years and things are—well, pretty much the same.

“This production is still relevant in so many ways,” says Eric Davis, who is directing Hair for American Stage in the Park’s 25th Anniversary at Demen’s Landing in St. Petersburg. “From the point of view of homosexuality, it’s the first major Broadway show that had any gay characters. It opened two years before Stonewall and it’s still pertinent today because we see ‘Woof’s’ crush on a man and his struggle to live a double life. That still happens today, which is unfortunate.”

Davis, who is gay, says that because Hair is set in such a pivotal moment in history—the beginning of the gay rights movement, feminism, etc.—that it still resonates today as people strive for true equality.

“It’s not just a musical,” he says. “It’s a movement about race and sexuality.”

For actor Jeremy Hays, who plays “Berger,” getting a chance to appear in a large production of Hair is a dream come true. The 28-year-old had read the play while in school, so he was familiar with it. But experiencing the production first hand has been much more rewarding, he says.

“This piece of theater is like the big important one,” Hays says. “It’s the first time rock music was in a play on Broadway. It has improve, sexuality, religion, civil rights and undertones that other productions just didn’t have. To me, it’s so neat that a play that is 40 years old is still so current. In the 1960s, the actors portrayed what was happening outside the theater inside on the stage.”

Hays says he hears many people compare Hair to Rent, but he thinks Hair is less “time-capsuled.”

“Rent is a great production but it suits a specific time and a specific issue—AIDS,” he says. “I love that show. But Hair covers so many aspects and can be set in any timeframe and maintain its relevance.”

Hays thinks LGBTs will especially see links between the 1960s and today through the production.

“There’s no way an audience can’t watch this and see some things that are going on now with the gay rights battle,” Hays says. “There are so many oppressions out there. Look at Prop 8 in California. It’s an ongoing war.”

For actor Dick Baker, who plays gay while portraying “Woof,” the production is about free speech against hypocrisy.

“When I did a report on this in college, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t get it,’” Baker says. “It doesn’t have a linear plot and I’d listen to the original cast recording and think, ‘Okay, they’re great singers, but I don’t understand why this is such a big deal.’”

After rehearsing with the St. Petersburg cast, however, Baker says his opinions of the play have changed.

“There’s an essence of the characters and an honesty that Eric stresses that really brings this to life,” Baker says. “There are so many messages in Hair that I never realized were there before. Sure it has fun music, but the underlying messages are what it’s all about.”

Hair_488058180.jpgA Shakespearean influence
Anyone remotely familiar with Hair can hum a few bars of “Let the Sun Shine In” or “Aquarius.” But some may not realize the timeless Shakespearian influences found throughout the production. That’s part of what drew Davis to the American Stage production.

“There’s a part in the play where ‘Claude’ goes on a hallucinogenic trip and the music in that scene just really appeals to me,” Davis says. “It’s the first time a song in a Broadway play didn’t rhyme. It drew the lyrics from Shakespeare.”

The scene invokes Hamlet and portions of an Allen Ginsberg poem to sell the drug trip.

“This sets poetry to music and there are tons of songs that don’t rhyme,” Davis says. “It’s evident that two great Shakespearean actors wrote this.”

Those writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, were both on Broadway in Shakespeare plays and both appeared in Hair as “Claude” and “Berger,” respectively.

While the two writers won’t necessarily see the St. Petersburg production of Hair this month, some of the original cast members who now live in Tampa Bay are slated to come see the show, according to American Stage marketing director Andy Orrell.

Surprisingly, the thought of original cast members sitting in the audience doesn’t seem to faze the director or the actors.

“Every production of Hair is different,” says Davis. “I think the original cast realizes that. There is some pressure there, but each show can be so drastically different.”

Davis says the script remains the same in his production, but the year—and an outdoor location—give him certain liberties and challenges.

Back to the park

Hair follows the story of a group of young hippies who begin a tribe in a park. So holding the production outdoors makes perfect sense—but it also means there are plenty of adjustments.

The original production of Hair was considered groundbreaking for its nudity. While that “nude” scene is still included in American Stage’s production, Davis said he had to take into account the location of his vision.

“We have some ordinances to comply with,” Davis says. “It’s not about being subversive and challenging the rules. There is a difference between performing indoors and in the open, wild environment of Demons Landing. It’s more public.”

Davis believes he has come up with some “elegant solutions” to stay with what the play requires and what society asks him to do as director.

Hays thinks the minor adjustments will work out fine.

“In the theater, the audience knows what its getting into,” Hays laughs. “But in the park, we have to respect those who don’t want to see certain images.”

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