By Raymond Rehayem
American Theater Company’s artistic director PJ Paparelli has spearheaded a revival of “Hair” that at times just might make yours stand on end.
“If you’ve never seen ‘Hair’ you’ll have your own experience which I think is very true to the time period. If you have seen ‘Hair’—and a lot of theater people have—I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised,” says Paparelli, as we speak days before the show’s opening.
Though speaking with him on behalf of Newcity Stage, I don’t qualify as theater people in this sense. I’ve never seen “Hair.” Not even the hit 1979 film adaptation. I had always sensed revivals of the Broadway production and certainly the movie were far removed from the original intent of the show’s creators. Paparelli’s stirring take seeks to bring the audience right to the genuine heart of the oft-staged, widely beloved rock musical.
“Nothing can replace the ‘Hair’ of 1967 and ‘68. Because it’s playing against something so real: the headlines of the day. It’s as if—this sounds horrible—as if you’re doing a theater piece about 9/11 as it’s happening. It would be so powerful and nothing can change that. But what I’ve learned, in terms of theater that’s socially/politically charged, is it’s all about specificity. It’s about being as specific and real as we can, grounding it in its period and the particular issues, and the specificity of the characters and what they’re going through.”
Set when the show premiered, in 1967, ATC’s presentation “tries to embrace the energy of the original Off-Broadway production.”
“I think we both would say, and hope, it’s closer to the original idea, because I think that’s the authenticity of any revival” adds JR Sullivan, who I speak with later the same day.
This “Hair,” billed as directed by Paparelli, has been taken to the finish line by Sullivan (credited with additional directing) who stepped in just a couple of weeks before the show was set to open after Paparelli had to excuse himself to address what he describes as a minor medical issue.
“Talk about jumping into the pool” remarks Sullivan “It’s a different script from the original ‘Hair’ that I knew, back then or even any other revivals. There are new ideas here, revisions, and new things. But,” echoing a sentiment Paparelli also stresses, “it’s not at all radically different from what it was; certainly the spirit of it is the same.”
Regarding contemporary relevance, Sullivan continues “I think there’s a certain edge to what’s going on in Act Two that’s really cognizant of what’s going on now.” Theatrically? I ask. Politically, socially? “Theatrically, politically and socially. I think an idea of the authors is that the sanity of the world lies in the strong ego of its young ones. Especially when they go up against what is and think ahead instead to what should be. The forces that are in charge want to iron them out into a conformity and a happiness with what is. But these young people, this tribe, is about: ‘No, rather it should be about what should be and we are the army for that and that is the army that we are willing to enroll in.’”
Again, both directors seem to view these matters through similar lenses.
Paparelli: “Looking at that particular moment in time it becomes timeless because it reminds us of a young generation’s voice that I think did lead to some social change, it certainly led to the kind of civil disobedience and civil protest we have never seen since. I ask myself— what would it take for us to go back on the streets again, what kind of thing would have to happen to us as Americans, to wake us up, to say we have the right to say ‘no’ as a country?”
To set the scene for this American tribe, ATC has reconfigured their theater. Paparelli explains “If you know ‘Hair,’ the first act is sort of this introduction to hippie life, so we’re really kinda taking that straight on and literally what we’ve created is a ‘happening’ in our little theater warehouse—we have a converted warehouse theater—so we’ve actually stripped all the chairs out, put in found chairs and couches, as if this group of hippies actually took over this space and have gathered in the audience to sorta explain to them who they are, what they believe in. We’ve gone back to this genesis idea that makes this piece more almost performance art than traditional musical theater.”
Aside from this rugged remodeling, the production’s revisions come from “Hair” co-creator James Rado who worked closely with Paparelli in preparation for the gutsy reboot I saw opening night. “The version of the script that Jim sent us has evolved over years. It’s not any new material; it’s material that was either from the original Off-Broadway production or from variations of it over the years. It’s everyone’s ‘Hair.’ It’s the same ‘Hair.’ It’s one line here or there that’s stronger, that sort of thing. It’s not some overhaul to the show. The biggest thing I think with Jim being involved is just really him guiding us to what the meaning of things are, and the original feeling of the show when it was Off-Broadway. That’s what’s been invaluable.”
Sullivan explains these revisions clarify the journey of pivotal character Claude. “Not just that he goes to serve in this misguided war, but in a spiritual sense goes back to [the tribe] and will continue to be a presence through them—that’s much clearer than it ever was before. The draft aspect is a historical aspect to it, historical fact, and puts a particular edge to it and a certain power to the protest but there are other things that take place now—the problem of individual expression, freedom to find one’s true self, the rejection of a false self, a false self created by culture and our own upbringings, getting distance enough from that to find a true self—that are as true as ever under any context.”
Paparelli offers his further insight into the show’s particular context. “The thing that resonates right now for me is: why when these things happen that upset us, when the government makes decisions about health care or marriage or the economy or foreign policy, why aren’t people out in the streets in the same way they were at that particular moment in time? I can say even from my own point of view as a gay man, now DOMA’s been knocked down, but for years it wasn’t and why wasn’t I out in the streets protesting about that, something that’s affecting a fundamental right that I had? And ask myself why. It’s because so many people at the same time were feeling something that moved them, that scared them, and moved them out into the street. And we haven’t had that in the same way, even though there’s hate crime and all kinds of things going on—the violence that’s going on now. This has the young generation now looking back, as well as people who lived during that time looking back, at ‘what was that thing?’ I think it was the draft. I think it was the combination of the draft and the civil rights movement.
“When the play came out the country was so divided about the war, there was such a tension in society. I’ve seen the play many times over the years—and I don’t necessarily feel it works if it’s completely just love and peace and hippieness—it needs something to rub against. That is a reaction against the country at war and the country with domestic wars in terms of civil rights and the assassinations that were going on, or about to happen. I don’t want you to believe it was just peace, love, happiness—that was a reaction to try to move people away from violent thinking. And even inside of those that were against the war there was a lot of violent feelings. So what we’ve tried to create with this production is a balance of tensions that exist, which—without giving things away—sort of ignites at the end of the first act, which wasn’t in the original production.
“I think as people watch it, and they figure out— ‘Oh, this isn’t a standard piece of theater, it’s something different’—I think that’s hopefully embracing the world that it came from and letting an audience feel like they’re in 1967. We’ve made the authorities very present in this production, with these cops that are there, which echoes the danger. If you’re going to do this kind of civil disobedience, the penalty could be being clubbed in the head.”
Of the era’s public nudity, Paparelli says getting naked is like a “fuck you to the authorities.” And he emphasizes the enormous amount of pressure around a young man having to decide whether to burn his draft card. It’s the director’s goal to bring those pressures to the stage.
Paparelli contrasts the handling of the big drug scene in his production with previous iterations. “The trip, for example, has always been kind of a pageant where all these crazy costumes come out, and you’re sort of seeing it through the lead characters’ eyes. Well, what we’ve done is actually allow the audience just to watch a group of people tripping, rather than putting you inside of a trip. Someone takes a drug in the show—yes it has a euphoric feeling for everyone, but people have different reactions. Somebody throws up. It gets angry, it gets silly. The complexity of that tries to represent more of the reality.”
I wonder if today’s audiences may be too sensitive to issues of race to accept the more touchy racial aspects of the show, such as the song “Colored Spade” or if, conversely, these songs are so familiar they’ve lost any bite.
“These songs have lost their context, even inside the musical.” Paparelli bemoans “Colored Spade” as “such a big joke” in one recent production he saw. “Because the music’s so great, the music’s just got a great groove to it, and so it didn’t mean anything. It was just sort of spouting out these names. Well, okay, in 1967 or ‘68 maybe it was controversial just to sing a fun song with a great groove saying those things, and that was enough. Nowadays, it’s not. What could we do that embraces what the meaning is? This version is very different—we didn’t change the music, we didn’t change the lyrics—it’s just the context is different. He sits down with the audience and starts saying these words and it makes you go, ‘I’m feeling very uncomfortable right now. Is he mad at me? Is there an accusation there? What is this?’ And that to me is much more powerful. I do want the audience to be uncomfortable. There are many times in this production when the audience might feel uncomfortable, and that might lead them to go: ‘I don’t know if I like this!’ The nudity in this production happens in a moment of great violence. [Usually when] you see nudity on stage, it’s either masked through lighting or if it is exposed, in some bad way, it’s done for the sake of shock. This has purpose and the way that it’s done… it just feels like ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s kind of what it would be, right?’ Someone’s being arrested or dragged naked. It’s upsetting. It bothers you.”
Sullivan again voices a similar sentiment, also arguing against presenting a safe, familiar version of a “merely happy, celebratory” revival. “While there’s an aspect of that, there’s much more.” Regarding such expectations that have grown around “Hair” he elaborates: “The problem with nostalgia with the theater, or any art, is a certain comfort level that takes away the opportunity for impact—that’s something you want to avoid. ‘Hair’ should be gritty, sweaty stuff.”
“We have things in the show that will definitely upset some people” continues Paparelli. “I think people might feel—Oh god, this isn’t the ‘Hair’ that I thought it was! I think some people like to watch, especially musical theater, to just enjoy the music and see the hippies! And that’s great, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what this tries to do. This tries to make you go, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I would do that. I don’t know if that’s such a good idea’.”
Lest he sound intent on making you squeamish, Paparelli concludes, “My intention is not to make the audience uncomfortable, my intention is just to be real, to say, ‘This is the complexity.’
“One of the great things about doing the musical at ATC is that it’s so intimate; it’s only 100 seats. That’s very different than a theater with 1,000 seats. The space itself provides this unique opportunity to get that specific and intimate. You can’t really see that in most of the venues that do musicals in Chicago; they’re large venues.
“You can hear the inflection, see the facial stuff going on with performers while they’re doing their thing. That’s the advantage: Oh my god, you’re so close, you’re so in it, like you’re in the middle of everything! And it’s a wild production. I think that’s exciting.“
In praise of these up-close performers, the two directors are again united.
“They’re such an amazing group of performers,” says Paparelli. “You’ll be shocked.” Indeed, I’m fairly astonished by what I see from ATC’s “tribe” on opening night.
Sullivan agrees, “They’re a wonderful ensemble, it’s been a real joy to rediscover this material with them.”
Set to return to ATC on May 12, Paparelli isn’t actually going to see their “Hair” until after it opens. He describes this scenario as an “exciting, weird experience—to go back to something weeks later and wonder what it’s going to be.”
I joke that he’s going to find the revival’s action moved to Studio 54 in 1978.
“1970s disco!” Paparelli exclaims. “Can you imagine?”
I can imagine. That’s not so different from what I always envisioned I’d avoided by never seeing a production of “Hair.” Remarkably the “Hair” I finally did experience is the bold real thing, going on right now, way Off-Broadway at American Theater Company.
American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron, (773)409-4125, atcweb.org. $48. Through June 29.