Citizen Staff Writer
Everybody asks about the nudity. Soon as you say Arizona Theatre Company is doing “Hair,” the first question is about that nude scene.
The answer is “Yes.” ATC could put a sign out on the patio of the Temple of Music and Art before every performance announcing “There’s Nudity Tonight!”
“The show does deal with a lot of touchy subjects,” says Joey Calveri, who plays Berger, the nominal leader of the colorfully counterculture hippie tribe living in Central Park. “There’s free love, drugs, the war and the draft.” He could have made the list much longer.
“Hair” – with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music composed by Galt MacDermot – was the first Broadway show with a racially integrated cast. There was also a lawsuit brought against the theater company for a scene desecrating the American flag. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When a Mexican production of “Hair” opened in 1968, the government shut down the show after one performance. All the cast members had to flee the country immediately to avoid arrest.
When the confrontational musical played Cleveland in 1971, a bomb was thrown at the theater. Days later a “suspicious fire” was started at the hotel where the cast was staying. The families of two cast members died in the blaze.
It’s a sign of the times, and perhaps of social progress, that these days the only thing people worry about is the nudity,
“When I was cast, I immediately thought about ‘the nudity,’ ” says Morgan James, making the quote marks gesture with her fingers. She plays Sheila, Berger’s live-in girlfriend.
Historically, of course, everybody kept their clothes on in the original production of “Hair” that ran for six weeks in Joseph Papp’s new Public Theater in 1967. It wasn’t until the show moved to Broadway in April, 1968, with new director Tom O’Horgan that the cast appeared on stage au naturale.
What caught the attention of well-funded Chicago producer Michael Butler was the musical’s stance against Vietnam. He thought “Hair” could be the perfect anti-war protest. To fuel the nation’s opposition to this bitter conflict, he encouraged other cities to mount their own productions. And they did.
The theater version of “Hair,” we should note, is much different from the 1979 movie directed by Milos Forman.
“The play is a lot stronger than the movie,” Calveri says. “The movie tried to force a plot the play doesn’t have. The play is a more abstract piece, taking a look at this hippie tribe telling stories so that the audience understands their lifestyle.
“One member of the tribe is getting drafted. He can’t decide what to do. If he should burn his draft card or not.”
These days it’s difficult to imagine the impact “Hair” had on the country. If those hippies with their lack of respect for anyone in authority could get their own show on Broadway, well, who knew what could happen if they won the revolution. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was the new Holy Trinity. Expanding minds and living free was more than an idea. Anyone who wanted to could do it. There were lots of people who wanted to.
“People will remember more than they think,” says James, affirming Calveri’s conviction the show will either be “a remembering experience or a learning experience.” For the new generation, ATC’s production of “Hair” will provide unique historical perspective.
In “Colored Spade” the leading black figure, Hud (Kyle Taylor Parker), recalls the very long litany of racial slurs used by white people over the centuries to lash and shame African-Americans. The song is placed after “Hashish,” celebrating the magic of illegal pharmaceuticals, and “Sodomy” that delights in reciting a cornucopia of sexual practices.
Jeanie (Lauren Lebowitz) is pregnant after a casual encounter, but rejoices over the life inside her rather than accepting any moral judgments on her impetuous behavior. She’s far more worried about the dangers of air pollution, singing “Air.”
While the songs and the values may seem extreme by the standards of today’s new conformity, both James and Calveri hope the performances of their onstage tribe inspires audiences to loosen up, to become more open to spontaneous happiness.
“These times are so similar to those times,” says James, referring to the rigid polarity between today’s liberals and conservatives. “The day we started rehearsals was Election Day. At the theater it became such a bonding experience for us, watching the returns come in.
“There are deep wounds that still haven’t healed from the Sixties,” James continues. “Sheila is a fighter, an activist. She organizes all the demonstrations.
“As an actor I have to make her real. Everything that’s in her is in me. I’m an activist, too, supporting what I guess you’d call the liberal agenda. So I know Sheila is relevant today, and this show is relevant today.”
IF YOU GO
What: Arizona Theatre Company presents “Hair” by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot
When: various times Tuesdays through Sundays through Dec. 20
Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
Info: 622-2823, aztheatreco.org