It was 2007 when Diane Paulus got a call from the Public Theater in New York asking if she'd be interested in directing Hair. Originally produced Off Broadway by the Public, the "American tribal love-rock musical" was being prepared for a revival to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
"I almost dropped the telephone," Paulus said in a recent interview. "I'm a total Hair fanatic."
The only problem was that Paulus, born in 1966, had never actually seen Hair onstage. "I knew the whole show by heart," she said. "But I knew it primarily from the album and the movie. I had read the liner notes on the back of the album and books about how they took it from the Public to the Cheetah nightclub to Broadway. I was filled with all those ideas about it. But I didn't really know the show."
No worries. Paulus' staging of Hair went from Central Park to Broadway, where it won the 2009 Tony Award for musical revival. Now it is on a tour that arrives in Tampa this week.
Paulus was a savvy choice to direct Hair, because of her background in avant-garde theater. Best known for a disco version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, called The Donkey Show, the New York City native and Harvard graduate wrote her senior thesis on the Living Theater, an experimental theater group in the 1960s that inspired the creators of Hair, Gerome Ragni and James Rado.
"All my life I felt like I missed my decade," said Paulus, who came of age in the '80s. "Getting to work on Hair was this dream combination of exorcising my fantasy of what it might have been like to be a young person in the '60s and enter the world of that kind of theatermaking."
Hair is legendary for its exuberant free-form structure, preaching love, tolerance and flower power. With input from Rado and composer Galt MacDermot (Ragni died in 1991), Paulus staged it like a happening.
"What's central to Hair is the idea of the tribe," she said. "Cast members are not called a chorus; they're a tribe. Basically, the tribe is onstage the whole time. There's very little scenery; everything's done through bodies and space and through transformation. The thing that's really hard-wired in Hair is this open contact with the audience. There's not a fourth wall that separates you."
In Central Park and on Broadway, Hair had plenty of cast-audience interaction. On the road, this takes some planning, with the show playing a different theater every week.
"It's actually thrilling," Paulus said. "You get into a rote performance on most tours. But every week this cast lands in a new city and it's like a whole new show. They have to be in the moment. The theater is different, the aisles are different, the exits are different. I think it makes the show vital and vibrant and alive. It keeps the cast on its toes. The show is so much about encountering a community. We just played Schenectady, and the audience was off the charts. I always said the tour was going to be the most amazing moment. When the tribe goes out across America and travels like a family, that is the real Hair."
Hair has iconic songs like Aquarius, Let the Sun Shine In and Good Morning Starshine, but if you haven't heard the music in a while, it comes as something of a surprise how rich MacDermot's score is, with almost 40 songs. "It is an unusually large number of songs for a musical," Paulus says. "Galt was by my side for every audition, and his truth meter was invaluable. He would say, 'Great voice, but it didn't move me.' He was so much about the spirit of the performer."
Back in the day, Hair was shocking, with its strong anti-Vietnam War theme, a draft-card-burning scene and nudity at the end of Act 1. "Some of the things that were very raw and hot-button topics in 1968 don't shock anymore," Paulus said. "For example, a young audience today won't really know what a draft card was. So we wrote some lines into the show that if you burn your draft card, you could go to jail. Kind of giving people an idea of what the stakes were."
Paulus spent a lot of time working with the actors on their characters, and guarding against hippie cliches.
"I wasn't interested in the campy hippie thing," she said. "And certainly not the Urban Outfitters, tie-dyed, hippie lite sketch comedy kind of thing. It was always about a deeper approach. I was interested in keeping all the wildness and ecstasy and irreverence of Hair but also getting into the emotional side of it. Who are these young people and why are they standing up for their country the way they do? What do they care about? What are their fears? Their dreams? I kind of wanted to work from the inside out."
Two years ago, Paulus became artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. Her latest project is a production of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which opens the theater's 2011-12 season in August. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this production, along with a starry cast that features Audra McDonald as Bess, is its adaptation of the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog).
As head of an influential theater like ART, Paulus is in a position to cultivate plays and musicals that could have the kind of cultural impact that Hair did. "I think things are bubbling in theater," she said.
What does she see coming down the pike?
"A lot of musical theater. A lot of people want to write shows with bands. Rock composers wanting to express a story. Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, American Idiot — all these shows are indebted to Hair."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.