War: What is it good for (besides bringing back hippie musicals)?

“Members of the Tribe still hug each other,” revealed This American Life Associate Producer Peter Clowney during a 1996 episode in which he visited the cast of the Cal-State Fullerton production of Hair.

“Another student recently asked, ‘When are you guys gonna cut out all that love crap?'” the NPR commentator further reported.

But for actors in the now-37-years-running musical, Hair isn’t just another chance to sing show tunes. It’s nothing short of a journey, an exercise in meta-theater where life behind the scenes must necessarily imitate the eventual on-stage art.

” … In each production of Hair around the world, the cast chooses a tribe name,” wrote Scott Miller in his 2002 book Rebels with Applause: Broadway’s Ground-Breaking Musicals. “This show, perhaps more than any other, really is an ensemble piece, in which the entire cast really must work together, must like each other, and often within the show, must work like a single organism. All the sense of family, of belonging, of responsibility and loyalty inherent in the word ‘tribe’ has to be felt by the cast.”

Ryan Norton, who plays a lead role in the upcoming local production (subtitled the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”), admits that the Asheville group has embraced the tradition in all its new-risen glory. They’re the Phoenix Tribe, after all.

But is that kind of bonding enough to make this ’60s nostalgia trip a relevant theatrical experience for sophisticated modern audiences?

Some people just joined communes

Hair started out modestly, with an eight-week run in 1967 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York. But after millionaire mover-and-shaker Michael Butler came on board as producer and reopened the show on Broadway in 1968 (with 13 new songs, new social issues and a new cast of performers culled more from the streets than the stage), the production launched a musical-theater revolution — not to mention the careers of Diane Keaton, Donna Summer, Tim Curry and Meat Loaf, among others.

Treat Williams was an especially sexy Berger (the drug-pandering, draft-card-burning, free-love-promoting hippie leader) in the 1979 movie version. John Savage, who played the movie-version Claude (the character recently drafted and about to ship out to Vietnam), later spent six years (1988-1994) in South Africa, working with Nelson Mandela for the anti-Apartheid movement. True to its utopian vision, the love-rock musical does seem to change people — and the change begins with the Tribe.

“It’s really weird. All of a sudden, I felt like I’d been accepted. I felt a kinship to everyone,” claims Norton. An admitted musical-theater virgin, the metal musician will portray Berger at Diana Wortham Theatre. “The virgin’s playing Berger,” he says with a laugh. “At first I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.'”

It’s his theatrical inexperience he’s referring to — not what he views as his natural inclination for the Dionysian role. Like many actors who sign on for Hair, Norton is crafting his character without referencing the film or stage show — apparently, this rock singer doesn’t need to, anyway. He is Berger. “I think I was typecast.”

In fact, an unusual absorption in the project is common for Hair cast, as This American Life host Ira Glass pointed out in the same 1996 piece for NPR (titled “The Job That Takes Over Your Life”).

“It seems like a group of three- or four-dozen people who are in love. In love. All of them,” he reported, referring to the Fullerton students’ behavior on the streets of Chicago. “Turns out it’s the cast of Hair which [was] in town. … One woman tells me, ‘I have never felt so strongly about love and peace and war.’ They’re not just in a play, they say. They’re on a mission. A mission to spread tolerance and love.”

“The most American of all issues”

Sounds groovy. But the script also resurrects some difficult issues, asking audiences to confront war, violence, drugs, sex and racism. Consider that the song “Colored Spade,” performed by the main African-American character, Hud, was penned the same year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

“I’m a colored spade, a nigger, a black nigger, a jungle bunny, jigaboo coon, pickaninny mau mau, Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo … ” Hud croons, invoking every racial slur in the book.

“It … makes people uncomfortable,” admits Katie Kasben, who’s producing and directing the local show without the backing of a theater company. “That,” she says, “is where the dialogue starts with the community.”

Hoping to pull Hair out of Afro-wig and bell-bottom purgatory and into the realm of contemporary significance, Kasben has reached out to Asheville’s African-American community. She’s scheduled rehearsals and a performance at the W.C. Reid Center. She’s even added an educational component: A panel discussion (to be held at UNCA’s Highsmith Center two days before the production opens) will feature original Hair producer Butler (now nearing 80); Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard; Tim Pluta, former Veterans for Peace president; and Pat McAfee, drama teacher at local Reynolds High School and the author of two books on Vietnam.

“Racism is the most American of all issues,” states Miller in his book. “When we hear [the stereotypes in ‘Colored Spade’] all together, when we realize how many more labels there are for blacks than for whites, they become ridiculous. They lose their power.”

“My whole philosophy on [‘Colored Spade’] is that none of those words bother me personally because I know I’m not racist,” says Norton. “Political correctness is a step in the right direction, but it’s still just a wall.”

“There are going to be some people who are uncomfortable,” Kasben states again. “But healing can only happen if we look at the truth.”

War: What is it good for?

Along with racism, the other big “truth” that Hair set out to expose was the atrocity of war, in the shape of Vietnam. For Kasben, the correlation between that event and the U.S.’s current involvement with Iraq is quite clear.

So why not just update the whole play? Why not make it the Iraq war and finally lose the anachronistic Lennon shades and love beads (not to mention the N-word)?

“It’s a snapshot of history,” is Kasben’s take.

Well — that and the show’s copyright doesn’t allow for changes to the script.

“People will be able to [make the leap] themselves,” hopes Kasben. “The [reopened] Emmett Till case is back in the news,” she points out (not to mention a recently released film about the 1955 hate crime). “We’re in a war again. It’s all coming back around. This is the perfect time for this musical.”

Of course, the draft — a major issue in Hair — has not been reinstated, and the current American sexual climate is comparatively conservative: not a lot of free love happening in this age of post-AIDS awareness.

“[Some people] want to take the nostalgia of the ’60s, but not understand it,” the director says. “There’s a lot of apathy today. Reality is so twisted now: It happens in a sound bite of a video game. … This musical is not an end in itself — it’s a jumping-off point. It’s a time for reflection.”

For actor Norton, his thoughts on what keeps Hair current can be summed up in a word: “Bush.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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