In some ways it doesn’t seem so long ago. But it was another time, another generation, another kind of theater.
In 1968 there were no smartphones. There was no Internet. Cars and kitchen appliances didn’t have computers in them. And most news consumers turned to daily newspapers or one of three broadcast networks.
But it was a time of fundamental change. A seemingly endless war raged in Vietnam, and revolution was in the air. Young people were rejecting tradition and questioning authority.
Out of that brew of civil rights protests, peace marches, massive rock concerts and armed underground radicals — all of it laced with marijuana and LSD — came a Broadway musical unlike any that had come before: “Hair,” a show about hippies living in tribal harmony and practicing sexual freedom and communal love.
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“It was the time for it,” said Larry Marshall, who was in the first Broadway company. “It just exploded off the stage. They hadn’t seen anything like that.”
Galt MacDermot, the composer, and lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado (both of whom performed in the original production) created a show that had a huge cultural impact. The show spun off Top 40 cover versions of songs that became enormous hits. Some of them — “Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In,” “Easy to Be Hard” “Good Morning Starshine” — took up permanent residence in the pop culture landscape. The cast recording sold millions and claimed a Grammy Award.
Eric Rosen, artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is in his mid-40s. That means he wasn’t even alive in 1968. But he described his parents as hippies, and music from the show seeped into his young mind via the original cast recording during his early years.
“I remember walking around a shopping mall at 7 singing ‘Sodomy,’” Rosen recalled. “I didn’t know what the words meant. I just loved the music.”
Rosen said “Hair” has been on his list of shows-to-do for four years. But he wanted to find a new way of staging it. And he did.
Rosen, known for coming up with audacious ideas, obtained rights for the concert version of the show, which freed him from telling the story of hippies living in the park. Instead, he’d stage it as a concert, but with twist: The cast would include six actors in their 20s or early 30s and six veterans of the Broadway show, either the original 1968 production or the 1977 revival.
Once the actors were in place, he got everyone, young and old, to sit down and write about their experiences and what the show meant to them. That material was then edited and turned into a script. The result: “Hair: Retrospection.”
“For we Generation X-ers to understand boomers is a challenge,” Rosen said. “One of the joyful things about ‘Hair’ is directing people literally my parents’ age.”
A recent rehearsal offered a taste of what audiences might expect. The six “Hair” veterans — Marshall, Heather MacRae, Zenobia Conkerite, Natalie Mosco, Robert I. Rubinsky and Michael James Leslie — hit their marks and remained more or less stationary while their younger counterparts — Jared Joseph, Daniel Beeman, Shanna Jones, Linnaia McKenzie, Tim Scott and Emily Shackelford — danced energetically through their ranks.
“I told the choreographer, ‘Look I can move around, just don’t ask me to jump or run,’” said MacRae, who took over several roles after Diane Keaton left the ’68 production.
“My agent called and said, ‘Larry, how would you like to do “Hair?”’ and I said, ‘I don’t have any,’” Marshall recalled. “Then he said, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a concert version,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ I thought that would be fun.”
But it has turned out to be much more than a simple concert. Marshall and the other veterans are singing songs they didn’t necessarily sing in the original show. And they’ve memorized their own stories as well as other people’s.
“To come back and do the whole show and try to remember some of these lyrics (is a challenge),” Marshall said. “Because Jim and Jerry would write lyrics that were quite clever and some of them were stream of consciousness.”
Rubinsky, who was in the Broadway cast on opening night and stayed with the show for a year or two, said that the original cast members acquired something like rock-star status.
“I think what I was aware of was the impact it was having on us,” Rubinsky said. “I was in this thing and … and then when it opened we kind of knew it was a bigger thing. But after a while we knew we were part of a phenomenon.”
Rubinsky who was 19 when the show opened, said that although “Hair” was political (Marshall called it “pretty far left”), the actors weren’t necessarily. And few, if any, were real hippies who believed in communal living and rejected consumerism.
“When you’re young and suddenly you’re part of this huge thing, it really shakes your world,” he said. “It’s like winning the lottery.”
That said, Rubinsky recalled that he was paid $300 for performing on the cast album. And having “Hair” on his resume both helped and hurt his later career.
“I’ve had a very checkered career,” said Rubinsky, who is also a playwright. “I was in the original cast of ‘Hair,’ and I tried to break free of it and, of course, now it’s with me again.”
MacRae said that although the original cast members weren’t true hippies, they were nonetheless plugged into what was happening outside the theater.
“We’d go to marches, we’d go to protest meetings, we’d go to the be-ins and love-ins at the park,” she said. “The music is great. It was the first real rock musical, and the thing that really set it apart was that music.”
Today’s politics seem vague and pointless, MacRae said, compared to the riveting clarity of the ’60s.
“We had something to believe in,” she said “I feel for kids today. We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cellphones, we weren’t in constant communication with each other. I wish people could understand what is was like back then.
“Honestly, I believe it was better because culturally it was a lot more exciting. What happened is the hippie movement ended and everyone got tired and cynical and then it became about surviving and making money. It seems like a scarier world than it was back then.”
Rosen said he found something terribly moving about seeing these actors in their 60s and 70s reclaiming material from a show that was the central event of their 20s. And he wants the audience to feel that, too.
Just as the cast took a 10-minute break during a recent rehearsal, Rosen addressed them with his ever-present microphone: “If I don’t feel like I’m having a seizure, it’s not working.”
Rosen said he knew he was taking a big chance with his concept. He had a vision, but he wasn’t sure who the performers would be until he began casting it.
“You don’t really know what it’s going to be until you meet the actors,” he said. “In this case, I feel like I hit a gold mine.”