ST. PETERSBURG — Forty years ago, Hair was a happening, a powerful protest against the Vietnam War, a generational milestone and a Broadway show that spawned hit songs like Aquarius, Let the Sunshine In, Easy to Be Hard and Good Morning Starshine.
But what made the "American tribal love-rock musical'' most famous was the closing number of the first act in which the entire cast was nude.
"It is the big question of the hour when people hear we're doing Hair: Are you going to be naked?'' said Eric Davis, who is directing the musical for American Stage in the Park. It opens Friday night at Demens Landing Park on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.
"That was an interesting challenge — maybe the biggest challenge of doing it in the park,'' Davis said of the nude scene. "Doing this show in the park offers more advantages than disadvantages, but one of the challenges is that the intimacy of being in a theater, altogether separated from the outside world, is not present when you're in a public park. So we had to come up with some interesting solutions to those moments without completely disregarding them. I think we came up with an elegant solution that keeps us within the law. Let's just say that the cast will be in a creative state of undress at that moment that isn't exactly nudity.''
Hair was one of the great breakthroughs of American theater, and its celebration of peace and love, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll never really goes out of style. The current Broadway production won the Tony Award for best revival and is still going strong a year after opening. American Stage has excellent advance sales for its show.
Still, the musical by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (lyrics and book) and Galt MacDermot (music) is more than a mere nostalgia trip; it was a tough, provocative piece of political theater in its heyday, and it remains so.
"We're not doing a sanitized Hair,'' said Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage. "This is the same thing that caused a stir back in the day.''
Davis, 36, wasn't born when Hair had its epochal run on Broadway from 1968 to 1972, but he was an avid listener of his parents' extensive record collection from the 1960s and '70s. As artistic director of freeFall Theatre, he achieved a coup de theatre two years ago with his site-specific staging of The Wild Party at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, and he thinks a similar approach will work in the park.
Hair was inspired by the experimental theater of the 1960s — Ragni was a member of the Open Theater — and Davis has tried to cultivate that sort of improvisational, collaborative style with his 14-member cast. "It's been interesting to try to bring some of the honesty and truth I see in naturalistic acting to this piece while all the time maintaining the universal poetic sense of it,'' he said. "It is full of unrealistic imagery and explorations of theme unconnected to plot.''
Hair was first and foremost an expression of the peace movement against the Vietnam War, and it is tempting to liken its era to today when the United States is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The play has interesting things to say about war that are still relevant and apply to the conflicts we're currently in, but there is one drastic difference between then and now, and that's the draft,'' Davis said. "The draft is the looming societal villain. The through line of the piece is the draft and how the young people are at its mercy.''
Jeremy Hays, who plays Berger, a free-spirited leader of the Tribe, has never had to worry about being drafted. "No one my age could possibly understand what it would feel like to be part of the draft,'' said Hays, 28. "But I do know what it's like to live in a country during wartime and see how it sadly doesn't affect our daily life. I think if there's anything to protest as a young adult, it's that, the daily complacency that we've arrived at. I think that's very troubling.''
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Many Hair diehards hate the 1979 movie, directed by Milos Forman, because it imposed a narrative on the loosely structured musical, but it has its merits, such as the choreography by Twyla Tharp. Davis wanted to bring a modern dance element to his production, so he enlisted Moving Current choreographer Cynthia Hennessy to work on the staging. Two dancers from the collective are in the cast, Brooke Bradley and Sasha Jimenez.
Don't look for any tie-dye in Frank Chavez's costume design for Hair, which is set in New York. "We wanted to have a grittier approach to the characters,'' said Chavez, who found a lot of the clothes for the show at vintage stores like Buffalo Gal in St. Petersburg and Sherry's YesterDaze in Tampa. One of his best sources of research on the costumes was an issue of Life magazine full of photographs from Woodstock in 1969.
"Tie-dye was more of a West Coast phenomenon, at least in the early stages,'' Chavez, 40, said. "The New York scene was a bit darker, more urban. It wasn't so much the psychedelic thing that was happening out in California. We looked at research and realized it's not all about feathers and tie-dye. We wanted to pick up more on the reality of the scene and not the fantasy.''
One member of American Stage's creative team who is old enough to remember the original Hair is Vince Di Mura, 49, the musical director who will lead the four-piece band. This is the sixth production of the show he has done, and he looks the part, with his luxuriant black mane. Though Hair is often called the first rock musical, Di Mura considers it pure Broadway.
"MacDermot was a Broadway writer who was referencing the pop music of his time, which is why, 40 years later, it sounds like theater music with a rock sensibility,'' he said. "I want it to rock. So when I work with the cast, I tell them rather than performing the score the way theater people would sing it, show me how Marvin Gaye or James Brown would sing it.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.