“Hair” brought America’s countercultural revolution to Broadway in the late 1960s. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Yes, yes, and yes. The game-changing musical was the brainchild of composer Galt MacDermot and two writers and lyricists, Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Their show was a hit — and hit the Top 40 with songs like “Hair,” “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In.” But that was then, and this is now. Is the musical still relevant today? Two passionate talents at Asolo Rep say “yes” to that as well. Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes and co-choreographer Ishita Mili have put their hearts into this production. As they see it, the countercultural revolution isn’t a thing of the past. It’s still going on. Though, it’s evolved …
“Hair” was definitely a musical of its time. How do you make it relevant for our time?
Josh Rhodes: We didn’t have to do anything — we just let “Hair” be “Hair.” It’s actually completely relevant to right now. So many of the issues of the 1960s Civil Rights movement are still with us — and still demand attention. “Hair” is a musical about radical love and political activism. It’s not about dropping out of society. It’s about making a change. That’s totally relevant to our time.
OK. But a revolution that succeeds is no longer revolutionary. So many of the changes the musical advocated have taken place …
Ishita Mili: America has made great progress since 1968. But we’re still facing many of the same issues. There are many areas where we thought we’d made progress and haven’t.
The Vietnam War is over.
Rhodes: Of course, though others followed. And, yes “Hair” is an anti-war piece. But the focus is positive, not negative. It’s not the “American Anti-War Rock Musical. It’s the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” At its core, it’s putting a magnifying glass to the social revolution that was happening in the East Village. Their values were joyful and life affirming.
Even so, those values aren’t confined to the East Village or Haight-Ashbury anymore. Based on reviews I’ve read, “Hair “ was shocking in its time. “Oh Lordy! There’s nudity, they smoke marijuana, and there’s a mixed-race couple and a gay character!” That’s all mainstream today.
Rhodes: Sure. That’s all acceptable … on stage or HBO. We’re used to seeing it in a performance now. That doesn’t mean our country is free of those issues. Yes, we’ve opened up our ideas of race and gender identity. Much has changed since the 1960s. But those changes are often superficial — a matter of socially acceptable attitudes and popular culture. That doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the reality of a court of law or a random police encounter. There is still a lot of work to be done. That’s what this show exposes.
So, on a fundamental level, the changes “Hair” advocated for American society haven’t been accepted. The Age of Aquarius hasn’t dawned yet.
Rhodes: No, it hasn’t. The “harmony and understanding” these characters wanted is still a work in progress.
How are the young actors responding to the musical’s portrayal of 1960s counter-culture?
Rhodes: They see many parallels to their own experience. “Hair” really taps into the energy of young people today. I think we’re in the middle of another social revolution right now. Young people are angry but also optimistic. There’s a real cry for change — and that’s exactly what “Hair” is all about.
So, the young actors of 2021 identify with their hippy characters from 1968?
Rhodes: Absolutely. But, for us, it’s really easy not to label them “hippies” or define them by hippy concepts. These characters were part of a social revolution — which our actors are very much a part of now.
Are the actors having fun with this?
Rhodes: Very much so. But it’s not always a bright, shiny conversation in the rehearsal room. Talking about race in America generates many triggering emotions.
Mili: A musical like this is a powerful experience for the actors — especially after the long pandemic we’ve all experienced. America is going through a social reckoning. We’ve all been a part of it — and our work is a reckoning, too. So, during rehearsals, we took stock of the characters — and found ways to diversify their voices, stories, and identities.
How did you accomplish that?
Mili: By carefully looking at the script and the musical compositions. Many groups and parties were a part of that time but left out of most performances. We discovered that they’re actually present in the script and the original vision. We brought that out — and it really makes a difference when you feel represented. I know it does for me! I’m not actually from the musical theater world. I’m an Indian classical dancer by training. So, when Josh asked me to be a co-choreographer on this project, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of it. But when I looked at the script and story, I saw there’s actually quite a bit of my heritage in the lyrics and song choices. Indian thought and tradition also had a powerful influence on the hippy movement, though that’s often overlooked. All those aspects really drew me in. I’m personally able to bring a more diverse perspective to this production. My heritage and dance background informs the way I see the world — and my movement choices as well.
Did staging “Hair” change your perception of the musical?
Rhodes: Gosh. I’m still waiting for that answer. I’m making discoveries every day. It’s an interesting project – and it keeps telling us what it wants to be.
It’s a living thing — and not entirely tame.
Rhodes: No, it isn’t. “Hair” doesn’t have a fixed emotional arc like “The Sound of Music.” The story is implied and not necessarily blocked out. So, it’s interesting how our actors inevitably change the narrative because of who they are. Everything we’ve done keeps constantly changing and evolving. In its own way, this musical is like a crazy monster. We don’t know what it’s going to be until it gets here.
I can’t wait to see where it goes.
Rhodes: Neither can I.
What do you want theatergoers to take away from this musical?
Mili: I think our biggest hope is for each theatergoer to come with open minds and open eyes — no matter where they come from or what beliefs they hold. These characters might look a little differently or identify a little differently than you. But open up to their joyful world — and you’ll find out where they’re coming from.
Rhodes: We’ve lived through a passionate year of protests and a very large cry from the younger generation. “Hair” shows you where that’s coming from and why. This musical really opens your eyes — and I think that’s its greatest gift. So, I hope it’ll be an eye-opening experience for theatergoers. And that everyone in the audience will truly feel what’s behind the cry for change.