ORLANDO – It could be one of those milestone musicals that gets better and better as the years go on, as audiences find greater levels of depth in the songs than crowds did more than 40 years ago….
…. Or it could be just another show trapped in a time capsule, hopelessly outdated, with terminology nobody even uses anymore. Hippies, anyone? Counterculture?
When “Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical” opens at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre on Tuesday, June 21 – the first official day of summer – and continues for a six day run, it will have been nearly 44 years since this anti-Vietnam war musical had its Off-Broadway debut in October 1967 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, then opened on Broadway in April 1968. It would run for quite a few more performances than the Bob Carr is offering: 1,750 altogether.
But except for those who grew up in that era and enjoy a good nostalgia binge, can today’s audiences still relate to watching long-haired hippies proclaim the “Age of Aquarius” while Claude has to decide whether to resist the draft and avoid service in Vietnam, as his friends have? Should he throw aside his pacifist principles and risk his life to adhere to the values of his parents and an older, more conservative generation?
John DiDonna says the answer to that question is …. maybe.
“I think it depends on what’s going on in the world at the time the show takes play,” said DiDonna.
He should know. DiDonna is an Orlando actor, playwright and director who runs the Empty Spaces Theatre Co. and directed a production of “Hair” three years ago at Seminole Community College. He recalls at the time, the Bush administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had become very controversial, and DiDonna said he found the basic message of “Hair” still applicable today, despite the late 1960s trappings and lingo.
“When I did it three years ago, it was very relevant,” he said. “That’s why I decided to do it. We were stuck in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now, with people dying over there, if people can make the link to that, it’s important.”
Written by two unemployed actors, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with the music score by Galt MacDermot, “Hair” is a loosely structured saga about a group of young hippies who meet in New York’s Central Park, advocating free love, drug experimentation and scorn for the square values of their elders. One of the hippies, Claude Hooper Bukowski, gets his draft notice enlisting him into the Vietnam War. Claude’s parents urge him to do the right thing and go to Vietnam, while his flower children buddies advise Claude to move to Canada, pretend he’s a homosexual, or just drop out of society – and to burn his draft card.
Toward the end of the play, as the cast sings “Let The Sunshine In” (“We starve, look at one another, short of breath walking proudly in our winter coats, wearing smells from laboratories, facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy, listening for the new told lies, with supreme visions of lonely tunes”), DiDonna used images from the war in Iraq to bring that message home – war did not end in the 1960s, and it didn’t end with Vietnam.
“I made it relevant with images on the back of the stage from the Iraq War,” he said. “I think it’s very important for people to make those connections.”
Audiences at the Seminole Community College production seemed to get the link, DiDonna said – including some who had served in Iraq.
“I had a lot of commentary very similar to that, people who were actually in the military and felt like they finally had people who were standing up for them,” DiDonna said. “A statement against war in the 1960s is still a statement against war today.”
“Hair” looks at the sexual revolution of the 1960s, complete with profanity and a nude scene at the end of the first act (censored by the administrators at Seminole Community College during DiDonna’s production), and employs a racially integrated cast that invited the audience to join them on stage at the end for a “Be-In” finale. It became a feature film in 1979, and a Broadway revival opened on March 31, 2009, winning the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for best revival of a musical.
DiDonna said today’s directors don’t always comprehend the best to present “Hair” to modern audiences. Some treat it, he said, as just a fun musical with upbeat songs, and not a tragedy about the consequences of war.
“Often times when people do ‘Hair,’ they’re singing and laughing and dancing, and it’s not supposed to be that way,” he said. “They should be shrieking and crying. I have seen versions of ‘Hair’ where they’re laughing and happy and I have no idea what that means when their friends are going off to war and dying. I have never understood what they mean by that.”
DiDonna said he can take a play much older than “Hair” – say, for example, “The Trojan Women,” a tragedy by Euripides produced during the Peloponnesian War – and make it relevant today, depending on how the message is conveyed to modern audiences.
Paul Castaneda, executive director of the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, agreed, and said the challenges that “Hair” present to directors today are not that difficult.
“It depends on how you choose to approach it as a director,” Castaneda said. “Most times when it’s a show that has legs and dramatic stuff that’s universal, then it’s pretty easy to draw parallels to today.”
“Hair,” Castaneda said, is not as dated as it might sound, despite its late 1960s milleu.
“If there’s stuff going on in the current world which mirrors what was going on back then, it’s easy, and I think there is a lot going on today that’s still relevant to ‘Hair,’ “ he said. “There’s wars going on today that people disagree with, there’s still a counterculture today, and there’s still a disaffected youth that doesn’t understand the older generation, and vice versa. Those kinds of things, thematically, still work.”
The Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre is at 401 W. Livingston St. in downtown Orlando. To get tickets for “Hair,” call 407-849-2577 or log on to http://www.orlandovenues.net/other_info_files/bob_carr_centre.php.
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