Making 'Hair' fuller

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2006

Last year, artistic director PJ Paparelli thought about making a few changes for Perseverance Theatre's presentation of "Hair" and put in a call to James Rado, the co-writer of the original script.

They ended up spending four days on the telephone, including part of Christmas Day.

The result, they hope, is a version of "Hair" that's much more linear, and much more in line with the original off-Broadway version that opened in 1967. Rado and Paparelli have reinstalled two songs from that score, removed one ("Hippie Life") from a European revision, added lyrics to many of the soundtrack's classics and attempted to flesh out the story of Claude, The Tribe-leader struggling with the arrival of his draft notice.

"Hair," directed by Paparelli with musical direction by Sally Smith, opens Friday, March 10, at Perseverance and runs through April 16.

The story, written by Rado and Gerome Ragni, chronicles a New York City hippy commune (The Tribe) exploring free love, drugs and rock and roll and putting down the establishment at every opportunity. Claude (Jeff Ashworth) ultimately decides to leave and fight in Vietnam. Berger (Rory Merritt Stitt) tries to come to terms with his friend's decision. Sheila (Robyn Kemp) is a free-love protester who loves them both. It includes more than 40 musical numbers, almost all of which were choreographed.

Paparelli was directing a version of "Hair" in Pittsburgh almost 10 years ago when he met Rado. They chatted briefly about some of the revisions the play had undergone over the years. "Hair" opened Oct. 17, 1967, at the off-Broadway Public Theater in New York City. It was radically revised when it jumped to the Biltmore Theater on Broadway in April 1968.

"The problem of the piece was that there wasn't a lot of character development," Paparelli said. "The story of Claude was cut for Broadway and presented in a much more nonlinear way." A young man gets drafted and goes to war. That was happening every day. They felt they didn't need to flesh it out so much."

"What I'm looking at 38 years after the draft is that the time is different," he said. "I was worried that the piece would be too much of a period play. The story that was originally there is a really beautiful one if it can be brought out more clearly."

It turned out that Rado was contemplating similar changes for a production of "Hair" he's currently working on in Toronto. He decided he'd like to try the revisions at Perseverance first. Paparelli and Rado mined the original scripts for ideas, and used them to flesh out Claude's journey. The new version begins with a framing device. An older man enters and flashes back in time to when he was a hippie.

They've added two songs from the original version that were cut for Broadway. "Exaneplanetooch" is about Claude's fantasy planet - a land with no war, no government and no police. The chorus of "Children of the Avenue" has been added near the end of the first act, shortly before the tribe arrives at the Be-In. They've axed "Hippie Life," a song that was added at the end when the production toured Europe in the early 1990s.

Rado and Paparelli have also added new lyrics to a handful of songs, including the classics "Aquarius," "Hashish," "Where Do I Go" and "Easy to be Hard."

"In the original form they were more like pop songs, with repeating choruses and verses," Paparelli said. "Now they've got much more of a journey. They progress forward."

As they've added text, Paparelli and Rado have also shifted some of the scenes into different acts. "Hashish," for example, has been moved into Act I.

The story originally progressed as a series of satiric vignettes, a mode of storytelling which was common in the day but hard for some to follow today. Rory Merritt Stitt (Berger) was unfamiliar with the play and completely lost when he bought an original version of the script at a store in Portland, Ore.

"It really made no sense to me," Stitt said. "I couldn't pick out a story from the script. I just got the impression that it was sort of like flipping TV channels."

Jeff Ashworth (Claude), a New York City resident and a South Carolina native, had never seen the play before starring as Claude in the summer of 2004 at the Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, Ill. That version was tamed down considerably but still gave him an idea of the spirit of the play.

"I have no idea what the original production was about or how it played," Ashworth said. "What I do know is that the things we find shocking today aren't necessarily the same things that were shocking then. To have a group of white women singing about the sexual values of black men was shocking back then. It isn't as head-turning today."

what: "hair"

when: opens friday, march 10 and runs through april 16.

where: perseverance theatre.

more: for more on the play, check out the march 16 issue of this week.

Others in the cast have practically grown up with the play. Music director Sally Smith was a junior high school music teacher in Los Angeles when she saw "Hair" in 1969. Her neighbors had loaned her the record a year before, and she knew all the songs before she attended. This is her ninth play as music director at Perseverance, and her first since "Working."

"Back then, I think we caricatured ourselves and we caricatured the issues of the time," Smith said. "We saw things with a different sense of humor. ('Hair') was a nonlinear story about the draft and about civil rights, but we understood it perfectly. We were living it from day to day."

"It's truly fascinating to see an interpretation of history that you lived through the eyes of people who are interpreting it," she said. "In some sense, there's a little bit of pain in the rejection of things that were so important to you. In another sense, there's a fascination with what they see that you didn't."

"Hair," of course, is famous for its full-frontal nude scene near the end of Act I. It earned the play plenty of notoriety in 1968, and even some legal wrangling when the play left the liberal confines of New York City.

"When I tell people I'm doing 'Hair,' they always say, 'Are you getting naked?'" Ashworth said. "It's the first question on people's minds."

Ten years ago in Pittsburgh, Paparelli was told nudity would not be allowed. The cast still decided to strip on opening night. In Juneau, the cast also has a choice.

"It's kind of hard to make an edict if you want or don't want nudity in a play like 'Hair,'" Paparelli said. "If you want to do it, fine. If you don't, that's fine too. It's really a statement of who they are. We respect each other's wishes."

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Ashworth has a nude scene, though not in the ensemble at the end of Act I.

"The scene where I am nude is very powerful, in my mind," he said. "It's not nudity for nudity's sake, which is what the original was in some regard. It was kind of like, 'Nobody's ever done this before. We're liberated and we can do whatever we want. We're going to come out of this parachute and we're going to be naked.' It might enhance the story a little bit, but it doesn't move the thing forward."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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