Friday, February 15, 2008

2008 Will See Another Be-In At The Delacorte

There are some theatrical experiences that stick with you. You know the ones... For me, the musical Hair was, and continues to be, one of those experiences. It is the original "little rock musical that could" - sorry Guilty Ones - penned by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. The thing I love most about Hair, aside from the music, is that it is a socially, religiously and politically charged piece that resonated with young people that were confused and scared. In that respect, it is not unlike Spring Awakening.

In 1967, Joseph Papp offered Hair a 6-week run as the first experimental production at what was then a new Public Theater. Producer Michael Butler moved it to the Cheetah Club in Midtown and after a few rewrites, the show moved to Broadway's Biltmore Theatre for a 4-year run that featured Rado and Ragni, as well as Diane Keaton, Melba Moore and Ben Vereen, among others.

I was born some time during that original run, so the soundtrack was among those that my father had around the house. I remember learning "Easy To Be Hard" for a high school audition once but I think I ended up going with "Oom-Pah-Pah" from Oliver! Just as well, because I didn't really understand the lyrics in Hair until much later in life.

In the 80s, once VCRs became a household staple and I got a job at a video store, I was introduced to the Milos Forman film incarnation, which featured Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly d'Angelo. It had a storyline that was somewhat different from the stage version. However, it was this version that stuck with me first.

The most notable difference between the film and the play is with Claude's character and his ultimate fate. In the play, Claude is a hippie, a member of the Tribe who gets his draft card, ends up going to Vietnam and getting killed. In the film, however, he is a clean-cut Midwesterner who has been drafted and happens upon the Tribe en route to his deployment to Vietnam. He makes such a fast and furious connection with the Tribe that their charismatic leader, Berger, switches places with him while Claude is on his military base - all so he can see the Tribe once more before heading to Vietnam. While Berger is at the base, Claude's unit is deployed. He ends up going to Vietnam in Claude's place and getting killed. Poignant messages in both versions but vastly different.

Desert Storm began in the middle of my freshman year of college. In addition to a number of friends that were attending ONU with tuition assistance from Uncle Sam, I also had friends that were Kuwaiti. Both were called to active duty by their respective militaries. Being a Theatre/English major, my circle of friends were more the "hell no, we won't go" type. All of this rejuvenated my interest in Hair and it was at that point that I began a more academic approach to the production. My interest in Hair was, in fact, the genesis of a program that gave opportunities to student directors. For me, the program provided me with the opportunity to become the only student to direct a mainstage production in the history of the University. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to direct Hair at ONU but it was this period that really cemented Hair as one of my all-time favorite musicals.

The summer after my junior year, I was afforded the opportunity to be a part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as the stage manager for an Estonian play authored by the country's Minister of Arts & Culture, Paul-Eerik Rummo. In addition to the phenomenal experience that was "The Fringe", I took advantage of the trip to Europe to see some theatre in London. Imagine my ecstatic surprise to discover that Hair was being revived at the Old Vic. As best I can recall (this was over a decade ago), the production remained true to the book. The production was relatively short-lived and not very well received. No matter. I was thrilled to have had the chance to see my favorite show in its organic format.

Fourteen years later, in 2007, the musical celebrated its 40th year. The nice folks down at the Public decided it might be a good idea to bring the show back to NYC. After a two-week whirlwind of rehearsals, the Tribe once again descended upon Central Park. Of course, flower children of yesteryear and veterans of wars past came out in droves but, with the hip young talent of Jonathan Groff, Will Swenson, Karen Olivo and Kacie Shiek leading the cast, the three-day run also attracted the younger theatregoer. Certainly age does wither many of the moments that shocked audiences in 1967, but the message remains timeless. The anti-war theme definitely resonates with today's young people but so do the struggles the Tribe members face with their parents, school, religion, sexuality, drugs and, quite simply, growing up.

Being a longtime fan of Hair, I dragged my 38-year-old ass out of bed and slept on the pavement for my free ticket to this 40th Anniversary Concert. Some things are worth doing. With ticket in hand, at 7:00pm I waited eagerly for passage through the gates of the Delacorte. After I watched a woman scalp the tickets for $150 a piece, my friend met up with me and we queued up in the long line in front of the theatre. Whilst standing in that line another gentleman, donning a straw conical hat, attempted to sell his ticket at face value to a woman who claimed to be a cop. If Joe Papp wasn't already rolling over in his grave at the $100 "donation" tickets, he was undoubtedly awakened by the sound of the free tickets going for a buck and half.

After a few minutes, we realized that we were in the "cancellation" line, an error we righted straight away. Amidst the sea of ticketholders milling about was a veritable who's-who of theatre. Several Spring Awakening folk were there to show their support for castmate Jonathan Groff. As we made our way to our seats, we spotted James Rado bouncing about the crowd, seeming almost bubbly over this anniversary concert that was generating all this fuss.

It was with good reason that people were effusive. This passionate and energetic cast, backed by composer Galt MacDermot himself, ably conjured up those familiar ghosts of the 60s. The show, which has been widely criticized for its less-than-stellar book, arguably finds its strength in the music. With such a tight schedule, director Diane Paulus undoubtedly had to sacrifice a lot of the allotted rehearsal time to music. This sacrifice was not in vain as the assembly of powerhouse voices did the score serious justice.

Will Swenson was an infectious Berger, bringing the right amount of charisma and timing to the role. Tony-nominee Jonathan Groff, as Vietnam draftee Claude, deftly brought his acting and singing chops to one of Hair's meatier roles. The fiercely talented Karen Olivo shone as Shiela, the much sought after NYU student. And, as the pregnant Jeannie, Kacie Sheik blended vocal sophistication with endearing innocence. Truly, the talent amassed on that stage, in all its vim and vigor, represented what a bright future is in store for Broadway.

As is common with productions of Hair, there were edits made to both the score and the script. "Dead End", "Sheila Johnson", "Hippie Life" and "The Bed" were cut from the 2007 production. All of those songs, save "The Bed", were included in the Actor's Fund Concert but I've not seen or heard "The Bed" performed since I saw the production at the Old Vic. I didn't really miss it, but I like the "Sheila Johnson" lead-in to "I Believe In Love" because you get a better sense of who she is and how she relates to the Tribe.

While I'm sure there were many more than just these, there were only a few noticeable cuts to the book. I felt that the relationship triangle between Berger, Sheila and Claude was mistakenly downplayed. Sheila sleeping with Claude before he goes to Vietnam can be really poignant if played right. Eliminating that dimension is not a directorial choice I would have made. Another area that seemed to be glossed over was when Claude cut his hair. This is a very symbolic action in the play and it didn't carry the impact it should have. I owe that partially to the fact that Groff couldn't get a proper miliary haircut because of his Spring Awakening commitment. Hopefully, that will be remedied in future productions. A final scripted moment I would have liked to have seen is at the end of play. Following the reveal of Claude's corpse during "The Flesh Failures", the Tribe dissipates while singing "Let The Sunshine In." Throughout the song, Berger is meant to have a pair of drumsticks that he beats frenetically. By the time the final chord of the song is reached, Berger is standing at the head of Claude's grave and creates a cross symbol with his drumsticks. The lights go to black and the cross glows eerily in the darkness. A scripted moment that I've never seen live and someday would like to.

Back in September, when there was a lot more press about this event, I read a blurb that there was talk of moving this production to Broadway. As I eluded to in the previous paragraph, while it is not Broadway bound, I am delighted to hear that a fully-realized production of Hair will be included in the 2008 Shakespeare In The Park series. Thus far, Will Swenson and Jonathan Groff have signed to reprise their roles. Karen Olivo is currently starring in In The Heights, which opens on March 9th. I find it hard to believe that she will take a hiatus during Tony season, since In The Heights is a likely contender for some top awards. Perhaps the insanely talented Kacie Sheik will step into the role of Sheila, a role that I believe she is even more suited for than Jeannie.

Diane Paulus will helm the 2008 iteration for the Public. I'm anxious to see what a budget and full rehearsal schedule will bring to the production. The director in me would love to see a multi-media aspect explored but I've yet to get a call from the Public for my input. But that's okay. I'll gladly settle for another night on the line and the opportunity to experience this wonderful production once again - in all its hippie glory!


Esther said...

Wow, Alicia, awesome post! You have some great insights and I love hearing about why "Hair" has been such a meaningful show to you. I'm really hoping I'll get a chance to see it this summer in Central Park. It sounds like so much fun. And I love the music. Yes, some of the songs are topical, but they really embody the times in which the show was written. I hadn't thought about it, but maybe the story does have more resonance to 2008 than I thought it did. I love the flyer, too, btw.

Alicia said...

The flyer was actually a prop they handed out at the September performance (before "Hare Krishna/Be-In"). I snatched it for my memory book. :)