‘Hair’ is just as groovy and socially relevant as it was in ‘67

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Skylight Music Theatre is staging Hair. -Photo: Mark Frohna

In 1967, the Broadway musical world was rocked like never before by Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Nothing like it had been tried before, and it spawned an entirely new direction in musical theater.

Wrapping sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in social, political and environmental themes, the show captured a unique time in American history. Nearly 47 years later, Hair still speaks with vibrancy about issues remaining at the forefront of American social concerns, according to Ray Jivoff, the director helming Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming production of the classic.

“The show is about raising people’s awareness,” says Jivoff, a native of Syracuse, New York, and life partner of C. Michael Wright, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s producing artistic director. “The idea of men with long hair as a revolutionary statement has evolved, but there is still controversy in terms of language, sexual references, racial issues, the war and the government.”

“This is more of an event than a show,” he adds. “It’s a ritual that asks more questions than it answers.”

The play’s street theater conventions and cultural references, which would date a lesser work, simply serve as a starting point in Hair, says Jivoff, who’s directed the work twice before.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair’s loose storyline chronicles a “tribe” of characters on New York’s Lower East Side at a time when the Vietnam War raged, racial unrest burned in America’s cities, and young people questioned every aspect of traditional society. 

Claude (Doug Clemons in the Skylight production) receives a draft notice telling him to report for military service. Friends Berger (Alex Mace), Sheila (Alison Mary Forbes), Woof (Ryan Cappleman), Hud (Sherrick Robinson) and the rest of the tribe attempt to talk him out of going, but with little luck. 

Between the opening notes of “Aquarius” and the closing anthem “Let the Sunshine In” come a host of former pop hits, including  “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine.” The play also includes a “be-in,” an anti-war protest, a hallucinogenic drug trip and an obligatory nude scene.

Make that a nude “episode,” Jivoff says.

“The nude scene seems to be what everyone remembers, but it’s really only 20 seconds at the end of Act I,” he explains. 

More unsettling to contemporary audiences might be the racist stereotyping in the song “I’m Black/Colored Spade” sung by Hud, an African-American character. The song “Sodomy,” sung by Woof, a closeted gay character, broke new ground in 1967 and might continue to set some audience members on edge.

Act I is full of high energy as it establishes themes and explores the characters’ joyous, hedonistic lifestyles. Act II turns darker as it follows Claude to Vietnam and explores the narrative’s anti-war roots.

“Claude is often compared to Hamlet and Jesus Christ and quotes from both of them,” Jivoff says. “He feels he is a character in a myth and turns out to be a character destined to be sacrificed to inspire the tribe to continue with its anti-war mission.”

Hair has seen notable actors and other performers in productions throughout its history. Authors Rado and Ragni appeared in several early iterations, and a young Diane Keaton was part of the original Broadway cast. So was singer Melba Moore and dancer Ben Vereen. 

Performers Andre DeShields, Donna Summer, Meat Loaf, Dobie Gray and Jennifer Warnes appeared in various productions. The London staging introduced Tim Curry to Richard O’Brien, who went on to develop The Rocky Horror Show.

Jivoff is proud of his all-Wisconsin cast, including 19 performers from the Milwaukee area. He also is thrilled with Jeremy McQueen’s choreography, which he says takes the show to a new level.

Audience members should be prepared to interact with the cast. The actors have been instructed to break the fourth wall and address audience members, asking for spare change, handing out leaflets and encouraging them to come on stage for the finale. They also dance in the aisles during the song “Hair,” he says.

Although not designed to make the audience uncomfortable, interaction with the cast could be a little more extensive than similar shows, Jivoff adds.

“The character of Berger is extroverted and fairly sexual,” he says. “I think that’s all I will say about that.”