“Peace will guide the planets … And love will steer the stars … Harmony and understanding … Sympathy and trust abounding.”
Who’d have thought that such sentiments would unleash controversy and turn the theater world upside down? But those lyrics in the opening number, “Aquarius,” did just that when “Hair” debuted on Broadway in 1968.
The first rock musical, “Hair” was an anti-war protest against Vietnam with hippies yearning to be heard by the older generation as they explored sex, drugs, love and peace.
As the production turns 50, it still resonates for members of Stockton Civic Theatre, who open the show on Friday for a monthlong run.
“The great thing about this show is there’s a great deal of fun to be had,” director Dennis Beasley, 37, said. “It’s irreverent and silly. On the other hand it’s also very powerful. It’s talking about real things. It’s not just that they want to get high and get laid. That’s a part of it, but they want to change the world and make it better. They want people to stop dying and killing each other. There’s a real power to it.
“One of the big motivations had to have been about being heard. … At its core it’s a conflict of generations. It’s why it’s so universal. Fifty years later, we can relate to it.”
His leading man, James Reed, agrees.
“So much is relatable,” said Reed, 32. “That’s what I love. Our generation sometimes doesn’t know how to express ourselves. We hide behind social media. This is a form of slap-in-your-face (theater) for all generations to see.”
“Hair” holds nothing back in telling the story of Claude, who has to decide whether to answer his draft notice or burn it in the company of a tribe of fellow hippies. There’s even a brief nude scene.
“The nudity for me is not the most offensive thing in this show,” Reed said. “Some of the content, some of the language, some very powerful messages about the Vietnam War, that evokes more emotion for me than the nudity.”
Reed’s father is a Vietnam veteran. His brother is an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force. The two have their own connection that Reed doesn’t share.
“It’s not something my family forced on me,” Reed said. “I went in a different direction. A lot of men who’ve gone to Vietnam don’t talk about it. My dad doesn’t talk about it. This has been an opportunity to get him to open up about it. I’ve been asking questions. It’s a nice conversation starter.”
Although it’s his first production of “Hair,” Reed has been a fan of the show since he was a kid, introduced by his grandmother and aunt, both fans of musicals. From the time he was in his late teens, Reed said, he’d travel anywhere in California to a see a production.
“I love the songs and music of it,” Reed said. “The fact that live theater could allow these topics, allow someone to feel these ways and push boundaries and evoke emotions was new. I’d been seeing so many shows when I was younger, happy, safe Broadway shows. This is one of the first ones that’s not your typical norm. I think that’s what excited me.”
For Navaz Khan, a 22-year-old San Joaquin Delta College theater major, being a part of his first SCT production is the result of lots of his friends from school auditioning and that fact he, too, loves “Hair.”
“Being a theater nerd in high school, a friend of mine in my high school theater company showed me ‘Good Morning, Starshine’ and we sang it at one of our dinner theater shows,” said Khan, a graduate of Elk Grove’s Franklin High who plays the role of Berger. “I decided to look at the musical. I listened to the soundtrack. By then there was a new Broadway recording and it was really, really great. I watched a bootleg of it on YouTube. It’s topical right now.”
If the themes — anti-establishment angst and protest, the generation gap and young people trying to find themselves — remain universal, stepping into the 1960s was a challenge for the cast and crew, none of whom were alive when “Hair” debuted.
Beasley introduced his young cast to the 1960s with a night of videos: Country Joe McDonald singing at Woodstock — “One, two, three, four, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam” — news footage of the war, a monk self-immolating and protests in the streets.
“All these things are referenced,” Beasley said. “We had to go through and say, ‘Do you know what that reference is?’ Most of the time the answer was no and we talked about all of that. We tried to give them as much context as possible.”
In addition to getting the history right, Beasley was intent on getting the hippies right.
“It was real important not to judge the ’60s or the characters,” said Beasley, who like his actors, is a longtime fan of “Hair” and played the role of Berger in San Jose in 2007. “You don’t want to act funky or make a comment on what you think a hippie is or was. I had to be careful not to do that.”
He has too much respect for the show for that.
“ ‘Hair’ is a landmark musical,” said Beasley, whose has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater. “It’s really the first popular rock musical. It changed how we looked at what we could do with musical theater. It’s still unique. You have to think Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired by ‘Hair.’ I can’t say for sure, but there’s no way ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ and ‘Evita’ and all those shows happen without ‘Hair’ having paved the way.
“It came along at the right time and blew the doors off what we thought a musical was. It changed things. It’s its own category and it was when it came out.”
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-9294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.