Somewhere among the sentences one never imagined writing sits this one: “Hair” will close the 2015 Music Circus season next week.
“Hair” is the social movement of a rock musical with numerous counter culture, drug, and sexual references and a notorious, though benign and brief, nude scene. While staging the ground-breaking 1968 musical fits comfortably within the mission of Music Circus in many ways, it’s still a bold move for a company whose main audience favors the artistically conservative side of things.
Director Glenn Casale said he relishes the challenge of bringing the legendary musical (“Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”) to the Music Circus stage. The production opens Tuesday.
“Out of everything I’ve done here since 1987, this is the most excited I’ve been about a show because it allows you to be creative, have a message that’s really important, and as a director it all comes together with this show,” he said.
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New York Times theater critic Frank Rich once wrote that Broadway “was basically trying to ignore the sixties” referring to the popular rock and pop music of the time, so as a result it “lost a generation [of theatergoers].” In his opinion, musical theater never recovered from that misstep. What critics of the time wanted to see was musical theater reflecting a broader, richer contemporary view of American culture.
Those critics got their wish when “Hair” opened in April 1968 on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre. The so-called “American Tribal Love Rock Musical” ran for 1,750 performances. It served as a melodic uptown primer for the exoticism of the suddenly raging hippie lifestyle for audiences who didn’t want to go Washington Square in Greenwich Village for the real thing. Writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado had gone there to see the “real” hippies they based their topical Vietnam-era story on.
It could make a person walk in the theater and change who they are. That’s what ‘Hair’ does to people.
Casale plans to give this production the authentic feel and texture he recalls from coming of age during that era in upstate New York. He especially wants the audience to understand the context of times, how the musical was a product of its generation but still has relevance to the world today.
“I thought this is something we should take hold of and really make a statement with,” he said.
Though the musical has become famous for its vividly entertaining spectacle and the numerous memorable songs, there is also the poignant story of a young man (Claude) who finds himself at a personal crossroads with his family of friends, the draft and the Vietnam War. Though the musical is clearly against the war (a more dramatic confrontational stance when it debuted), the theme was always about individual freedom.
“It is such an important piece of work that still speaks about mankind and the joy of coming together as human beings to correct this world, and that’s really the message,” Casale said.
But the play was not without controversy then and perhaps now more than 45 years later. Music Circus decided to position the show as an option to the season so subscribers could include it if they wanted in a six-show package or decline and still have a five-show season package. To date 53 percent of subscribers have included it.
“We put it on as an extra so we could do justice to what it is, but not offend anybody who doesn’t want to see it,” Casale said. “But to me it’s something that everybody should see.”
The director wants his version to be closer to the earthy, visceral original he snuck to New York City to see as a teenager rather than the slicker, cleaner revival, which came to Broadway a couple of years ago.
“I am going back to that original concept: simple and clear, not overcomplicated. It starts with the tribe,” he said. He wants to do the play as honestly as possible.
“A lot of people worry about the nudity in it. The language is in context and the nudity is minuscule compared to the play. It’s a moment, and it’s only there to show the freedom that they all have, and Claude doesn’t have.”
Casale also wants to emphasize music over movement.
“I told the choreographer, ‘It can’t be about dance. It has to be about these lyrics. You’ve got to hear the message that they wrote,’” he said.
‘Hair’ broke ground by defining the rock musical genre.
The original Broadway cast album received a Grammy for best score from an original cast show album. Many songs were covered by pop artists and became radio hits, including “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Let the Sunshine In” and “Easy to Be Hard.”
Casale said he looked for the best singers he could find in the auditions, and much of the cast is new to him.
“They’re good actors, but the singing, the music, that’s what I looked for. Great singers.”
He plans to make sure the ideas surrounding the narrative are clear. He’ll use video to show the country at war overseas and the turmoil at home with the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy fresh in the country’s psyche.
“This is a young person’s show. It could make a person walk in the theater and change who they are. That’s what ‘Hair’ does to people,” the director said.
“You see the change, you see the movement, you feel impassioned by the music you can’t let go of. It has a joyful message. ‘Let the Sunshine In’ is about let the sunshine in so we can change the world. Let it be a brighter future.”
What: Music Circus production of the ground-breaking rock musical written by James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermott; directed by Glenn Casale.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Aug. 23; 2 p.m. Thursday and Aug. 22-23
Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento