Youthful idealism 

CityRep and UCO’s theater department team up to perform Hair, a musical that only appears to be rooted in concerns of the past.

All of the performers Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre and University of Central Oklahoma’s joint production of Hair are under age 30. - UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL OKLAHOMA COLLEGE OF FINE ARTS AND DESIGN / PROVIDED
  • University of Central Oklahoma College of Fine Arts and Design / provided
  • All of the performers Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre and University of Central Oklahoma’s joint production of Hair are under age 30.

Billed as The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, Hair opened in 1968 on Broadway, where it ran 1,742 performances, earned a Tony nomination and topped the Billboard charts. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

“It was not at all meant to be a big commercial Broadway musical,” said Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (CityRep) founding artistic director Donald Jordan. “It was an experimental piece of avant-garde, cutting-edge theater. … It’s not exactly Hello, Dolly!, which is the kind of show that was running on Broadway at that time.”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary musical’s original Broadway run, CityRep is collaborating with University of Central Oklahoma’s (UCO’s) musical theater department to stage Hair Feb. 6-10 at the university’s Mitchell Hall Theatre, 100 N. University Drive, in Edmond.

Hair’s original cast recording spawned hit singles like “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and “Good Morning Starshine,” and Miloš Forman directed a film adaptation in 1979. A 2009 Broadway revival of the show won a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award, and a live production is scheduled for broadcast on NBC in May. But the musical, which follows several diverse characters through 1960s counterculture and focuses on a young man’s decision about whether to burn his draft card, was originally shocking and divisive.

“It was very controversial,” Jordan said. “It revealed the racism of the day, the sexual oppression and the sexual liberation of women. It was very strongly anti-Vietnam War. 1968 was sort of the nexus year in American history during that turbulent era of the ’60s. That was the year when so much of the turning point came and crises happened. Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. … There were riots. There was the Mai Lai massacre. There was the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 and all the fights that went on there. There was the extension to the Civil Rights Act that President Johnson signed. Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam, and he talked about how what was happening in the real war was different from what the Pentagon had been telling the American people, and the mood of America changed about the war when they discovered the realities. It was a huge, monumental year in American history, and the play sort of reflects all of those tensions that were going on.”

Subsequent unconventional, zeitgeist-capturing musicals including Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, Spring Awakening and Hamilton might not exist in their current form without this “far-out, way out there show,” Jordan said. Though attitudes have changed in some ways since Hair debuted, Jordan wrote a caveat for modern audiences.

“Warning,” it reads. “This CityRep/UCO co-production will include groovy hippies singing, cursing, smoking pot, dancing, getting naked, mocking societal conventions, meditating, taking LSD, flaunting their sexuality, celebrating their race, promoting peace, justice, equality and creating a happening. Also, there will be audience participation.”

The CityRep and UCO production also marks the 10th anniversary of collaboration between the university and the theater. Though Jordan had his own experience of the events of 1968 to draw from when he performed in Hair in New York the ’90s, he said the cast for the upcoming production, many of them college students, began working on the play with much less historical context.

“There’s no one in the cast that’s over 30,” Jordan said. “Most of these artists are, more or less, born around the year 2000, so when I’m talking to you about how I remember 1968 and what an intense time that was, to them it falls into history in the same way that the Civil War might if we were doing a musical about that. …  Part of the challenge is for young people to understand it, and as we talk about it, you see the artists working very hard to incorporate that information, and then you see how it impacts the emotional commitment they’re able to make and the specificity they’re able to bring to the play. Part of the unique quality of doing this play 50 years later is that the young people onstage were not alive then, but many of the people they will be performing the play for were alive then and, in fact, were the young people that the cast is pretending to be.”

Self-examination

For audience members who lived through the ’60s, the musical offers nostalgia but also a chance for self-examination.

“It’s about youthful idealism at the beginning of these people’s adulthood, and now, 50 years later, you can look back having gone through a life’s journey and think about the things that you believed then at the age of 18 and how powerful some of it was or perhaps some of it was naïve and didn’t really get everything right,” Jordan said. “Every generation has to learn as it goes. That’s all right.”

The young cast, meanwhile, can see earlier versions of progressive movements for peace, environmental conservation and racial and sexual equality that have continued into the 21st century.

“What they have really discovered is the germ of what that generation was fighting for in this time, how those things have gone on to become powerful societal constructs,” Jordan said. “The idealism of that generation in 1968 changed the world and moved it. The power of their protest and movement is really what led to the end of the war in Vietnam.”

Hair remains relevant, in part, because the issues it discusses are still unresolved a half-century later.

“Here’s the thing,” Jordan said. “It’s 50 years later and we’ve made great progress, but no one would say that we have no racism in America. No one would say that we’ve achieved perfect equality between the sexes. Nobody would say that at this moment in time, we trust our government to be honest and transparent. … You see in this play the incredible idealism and patriotism of these young people to challenge these institutions, to challenge things to be better; when you look at it in the context of 2019, we have made progress, and at the same time we still have a long way to go.”

But the musical also remains inspirational, Jordan said, because it documents a time when youth successfully challenged convention in a way that many previously considered impossible.

“What extreme underdogs they seemed to be, to put it in Super Bowl terms,” Jordan said. “These were crazy, idealistic thoughts. Who would think that you could make the government stop a war? Who would think you could change people’s thinking about the environment? Who would think you could put an end to this hundreds of years’ legacy of racism, and yet within that 50 years we’re talking about, we’ve seen marriage equality and we’ve seen Barack Obama come to be president. We’ve seen a whole different kind of accountability from our government about what happens militarily. It was the unfettered idealism of youth that in fact did change the world, the kind of thing that people either denigrate or laugh about. First they mock it, then they fear it and, finally, it comes to be.”

Tickets are $8-$30. Visit cityrep.com

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