When rehearsals began over winter break for the University of Maine School of Performing Arts’ production of “Hair,” director Marcia Douglas began writing notes. For a show that’s almost nonstop singing, even she didn’t realize quite how many now-archaic 1960s references would go over the heads of her cast — the average age of which is around 21.
By the beginning of February, she’d amassed multiple pages of notes, reminding her to explain to them about IRT, APC, A&P and even Timothy Leary, dearie.
“I was around for all of it, so I knew it. But once you really start looking at the lyrics, you realize that most kids today don’t know who Ram Das is, or what Rinso White is, or even the significance of burning your draft card,” said Douglas, a theater professor at UMaine. “I was really shocked by what they didn’t know. But then again, they were all born 20 years after all this took place.”
“Hair,” which will open at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at Hauck Auditorium on the UM campus, is an American musical theater classic, and an important reflection of the history of the 1960s. Despite it being tied permanently to the hippie movement, “Hair” is about a lot more than just sex, drugs and old pop culture references. It’s about finding yourself, and figuring out what really makes the world tick — not just what your parents, your teachers and the government tell you.
“At its core, ‘Hair’ is about people in their teens and 20s discovering that most of the stuff that adults had told them all their lives was not true,” said Douglas, who last directed “Bat Boy” at UMaine in 2007. “For a few years in the ’60s, a lot of people began to question authority. That’s where that phrase comes from. They saw that something was seriously wrong with the way adults told them the world was. That is what makes ‘Hair’ stay relevant, after all the years. There will always be young people who begin to figure out the world for themselves.”
The story of Claude, Berger, Sheila, Hud and the peace-loving, mystical, wild-eyed Tribe of free spirits is told by a cast of 31 University of Maine students, who make up one of the strongest vocal casts music director Danny Williams said he’s ever worked with. Nearly everyone is onstage for the entire show, hanging out in the open, warehouse-style set designed by Dan Bilodeau. While there are a handful of larger singing roles with more developed characters, the true lead character in the show is the Tribe itself.
“It is continuous music, and it is a real workout for the singers. There are 31 people singing constantly. They’re exhausted by the time the show is over,” said Williams. “But in 15 years of music directing, these are the best singers I’ve ever had to work with. We have wonderful male voices, which is always a challenge. It sounds fantastic.”
“Hair” had its original Off-Broadway debut in 1967, in the middle of the Summer of Love. In that year, protests against the Vietnam War were held in cities across the nation. Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Pink Floyd released their first albums. The Human Be-In, held in San Francisco, attracted more than 20,000 people to meditate, dance and protest the war. “Hair” is as much a part of that as the Monterey Pop Festival and LBJ, FBI, CIA and LSD.
Ultimately, the show is both a historical document and a call to action — which are both reasons Douglas chose “Hair” as this year’s musical production at UM. Some things change, but some things will always stay the same.
“There are other ways to solve problems, other than wars. There will always be people who want to find a better way to do things,” said Douglas. “Peace doesn’t go out of style.”
The music and message of “Hair” struck a chord with contemporary theater audiences just last year. A number of UM cast members traveled to New York City last year to see the popular Tony Award-winning revival of the show, still running on Broadway. While nearly everyone in the cast had heard the pop hits “Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In,” few of them were familiar with the rest of the show’s music before being cast.
“I’d never seen or heard it in any way, besides ‘Age of Aquarius,” said Kirsten Johansen, a 20-year-old English education major, who sings one of the solos in ‘Age of Aquarius.’ “I knew it was a musical about the ’60s, and that’s pretty much it. But I see a lot more than just that now. It is about a lot more than just that.”
English major Sarah Mann, 21, has developed close friendships with many of her cast members over the course of the rehearsal process. Mann feels like a part of a tribe — not just as a character in a show, but as a person sharing a special experience with other like-minded people.
“I think because of the nature of the show, we’ve all grown really close during the whole process,” said Mann. “The whole vibe just rubs off on you. And by the end of the show, we invite everyone in the audience to join the tribe as well. It makes you feel really open and accepting. You kind of get the whole free love thing. You want to find your own tribe. I kind of feel like I have my own.”
“Hair” opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus. The show is intended for mature audiences. Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13, 14, 18, 19 and 20, and at 2 p.m. Feb. 14 and 21. Admission is $12 for the general public; to reserve a seat, call 581-1755. For more information, visit www.umaine.edu/spa.