BOSTON — The year was 1968. The Vietnam War was in full swing, along with an emerging American culture built on the principles of love, peace, and political protest. This culture was defined by a radical group known as hippies; their hair was long, their clothes were tie-dyed iridescent shades of the rainbow, and their symbol was the peace sign.
The movement spread world-wide, but was most active in large cities such as New York. Within this innovative society in New York City’s East Greenwich Village, the story of HAIR: the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical unfolded.
Hair was written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and the music by Galt MacDermot. The musical was first performed on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater on April 29, 1968 with a run of 1,742 performances. The play opened to mixed reviews due to its controversial content of sex and drugs and messages of anti-war and racial equality. Today, Hair is performed openly by all levels of theatre; high school to professional.
This year, 2008, marks the 40-year anniversary of Hair. The Suffolk University Theatre Department will be performing Hair on April 10-13, 2008 at the C. Walsh Theatre on 55 Temple Street, Boston. The musical, directed by Theatre Department Chair Marilyn Plotkins, is adapted very closely to the original play with a uniquely Suffolk set design.
Hair tells the story of Claude, a young man who has been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Claude identifies his home as Manchester, England, despite his actual dwelling of New York City. He symbolizes the Age of Aquarius, destined for greatness or madness, in an era of peace, love, unity, and liberation.
Claude has strong beliefs and is motivated to make a difference, like the rest of his tribe. His best friend Berger and Berger’s girlfriend Sheila, a politically active New York University student, lead the tribe through various highs, orgies, and anti-war protests, while simultaneously encouraging Claude to burn his draft car and dodge the war. Claude realizes the draft is unavoidable, conforms to society, fights in Vietnam, and is killed in battle. The tribe is distraught over his death and questions society’s motives for war. Hair reinforces the concept of free-love, unity, peace, and most of all, the importance of life.
Life in the 60s was filled with the turmoil of war, drug use, sex, and political activism. Although not everyone is familiar with 60s cultures, Plotkins believes that the play is accessible to all audiences because of its in-depth exploration of the time period. “Every scene of the play depicts an issue of the 60s: drugs, political protest, environmental protest, war, women’s rights.” By the end of the performance the audience will have a thorough understanding of the atmosphere of the time.
The hippie culture is often looked down upon because of their rampant drug use and promiscuity, but their strong morals and dedication to social justice are characteristics to be revered. The play forces the audience to put themselves in the 60s, questions their personal beliefs, and ultimately challenges them to decide if they would have done the same thing.
Elissa Newcorn, Suffolk theatre major and role of Dionne in Hair, said that she was conflicted about the idea of being a hippie when the play began, but as rehearsals progressed and her knowledge of their culture increased, she knew for sure she would have been a hippie, too.
“I do voice my opinion a lot and stick to my morals; those were strong traits of the hippies. They were looked down upon and still stuck to their morals.” Newcorn explained, “They were very affectionate, I am affectionate.”
Suffolk’s theatre department constructed HAIR in such a way that made self-identification with the performance easy, especially as a member of the Suffolk community. The stage is designed to look like a construction scene, complete with scaffolding reaching the ceiling. Plotkins said the idea for the scaffolding was inspired by the recent renovation of the C. Walsh Theatre.
The performance begins with two ordinary students, dressed in Suffolk apparel, entering the hippie’s commune, being stripped of their physical societal identities, and joining the tribe. This transformation creates a direct link between every Suffolk community member in the audience.
Despite the uniquely Suffolk cosmetic touches that were added, the overall script of the play was nearly untouched.
“Normally, a lot of things are cut but, we wanted to embrace as much of the show as possible,” said Newcorn.
“We are going all out with everything. You can do the performance of Hair and do it or really do it, and we are really doing it,” said Nicholas Panagiotou, who plays the role of Margaret Mead in Hair.
Really doing Hair includes a lot of really controversial issues, most famously the nude scene. The nude scene occurs for about 10-15 seconds at the end of act one. The purpose of the scene is to convey the vulnerability of the tribe.
“The shredding of everything [clothes] represents the removal of everything that prevents the finding of pure direction,” said Plotkins. “It isn’t sexual, but a symbol of personal liberation and defying norms and rules. It is saying ‘No, I am against that’.”
Despite the obviously symbolic association between nudity, vulnerability, and purification, many past critics have claimed the nudity to be vulgar. Plotkins said she is not interested in nudity for its own sake; her interest is in making the scene as effective as possible.
As artists, the cast members understand the artistic expression of the shedding of clothes, but not everyone feels nudity is essential.
“Some sort of freeing of yourself is essential in that part. Releasing some sort of energy is definitely necessary; nudity or not,” said Newcorn.
“Vulnerability can be conveyed in other ways than nudity, but I also feel that it’s not a big deal- its art,” said Panagiotou.
As an actor one must be in character throughout the performance. Both Newcorn and Panagiotou believe that being nude is not a personal decision, but the characters decision. Performance is about the art, not the individual.
Concurrently, Plotkins said she does not want the audience to come for the nude scene, but to appreciate Hair for what it is.
What to expect from Hair
“Hair is a full experience of life with the senses on high,” said Plotkins with a laugh. “It’s about seeing youth struggle with an adult world.”
Hair: the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is simply that, an eclectic musical experience. The play is fun, energetic, comical, and still relevant. The audience should come with an open mind and expect to leave enlightened.
As any director, Plotkins wants every seat to be filled and every show to be sold out. She hopes everyone will bring a friend and join the party.
“Hair is a rock concert, loud and fun,” said Plotkins, “come as you would to a party.”