If you’ve ever seen a Broadway show from the late 19th century to the early 20th centuries, you more than likely experienced a production that emphasized certain principles such as class, dignity, integrity and discretion. But one musical broke new ground in musical theater in the late 1960s by defining the genre of “rock musical,” with its profanity, its depiction of the use of illegal drugs, its treatment of sexuality and its irreverence for the American flag in the midst of the Vietnam War. This touring rock musical aims to resonate with audiences with its powerful messages of love and peace when “Hair” comes to Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium for one performance at 7:30 p.m. April 12.
With an iconic score including hits such as “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In” and “Good Morning Starshine,” “Hair” follows a group of free spirit trying to find their way in a broken-down society. This most recent production, directed by Diane Paulus, won the 2009 Tony Award for best revival of a musical. The characters onstage may be hippies, but their experiences and emotions speak to all generations and resonate powerfully in modern times.
“Hair” features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot. After an off-Broadway New York City debut in October 1967 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, the musical began a subsequent run in Central Park after its debut. From there it became a smash hit and transferred to Broadway, opening at the Delacorte Theater in April 1968 and running for 1,750 performances. Since then, numerous productions have been staged around the world, spawning dozens of recordings of the musical.
“Hair” is a celebration of life, love, freedom and peace as experienced through a tribe of hippies. It focuses on the story of one main hippie named Claude, played by recent Carnegie Mellon School of Drama graduate Noah Plomgren. Claude, his good friend Berger, their roommate Sheila and their friends struggle to balance their young lives, loves and the sexual revolution with their rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society. Ultimately, Claude must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done, or to succumb to the pressures of his parents (and conservative America) to serve in Vietnam, compromising his pacifistic principles and risking his life.
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Throughout the show, Berger proves to be a pivotal figure in Claude’s life.
“He’s kind of like my blood brother in the show and he’s the ringmaster leader of the tribe,” Plomgren said. “Claude and Berger are perfect together. Berger’s much more playful; more of the fun, crazy side of the tribe. He possesses things that Claude lacks, and Claude has things that Berger lacks; so their relationship is kind of cool in that way. And then there’s Sheila Franklin, who is our love interest and there’s kind of a love triangle going on.”
Early on in the show, Claude gets drafted to fight in Vietnam. New York-born Claude is part of a tribe of hippies who are against the war and, because of this, burn their draft cards.
“Claude doesn’t quite know what to do and is very stuck, and he is searching for something to fulfill his life,” Plomgren said. “So whether that means going off to war, whether that means not going off to war and burning his draft card; it kind of focuses on his decision of what to do.”
After playing his character for a significant period of time, Plomgren said he can understand and relate to Claude, but he said the audience also resonates with him as well.
“I think everyone can see a little bit of themselves in Claude, at least as well as any other character,” he said. “Claude’s got a lot of heart. I think we’ve all had times in our lives when we’re lost and don’t quite know what to do. We’re searching for something to make our lives more meaningful and deeper and we’re not quite sure what that is.”
Plomgren said traveling with and performing a Broadway show can be grueling at times, but the rewards far outweigh the downfalls.
“Traveling can get pretty difficult and tiresome, but the advantages are endless,” he said. “It’s just been awesome to see other parts of the country and the people that kind of go with it that make up America. It’s also been very interesting to see how different audiences around the country react to the show.”
In the world of Broadway musicals, “Hair” broke the mold with its controversial topics, language and messages during a turbulent period in America. But even after 45 years, the show is still reaching out to audiences.
“It’s so different from your standard musical because there’s a lot audience interaction,” Plomgren said. “We spend a lot of time in the audience, marching through the aisles protesting, interacting with people. At the very end of the show there’s a big dance party on the stage where the whole audience can come up and dance with the actors. So that’s always really fun. It’s great because that’s where you can kind of really share the love.”
With a touring Broadway show that transcends generations of people with its powerful messages, “Hair” is sure to transform audiences wherever it travels.
“What I hope audiences get out of this show is just the message of love and peace and acceptance that we project and portray,” Plomgren said. “It’s such a beautiful message, and I hope that audiences walk away feeling the love and feeling inspired to go out and maybe fight for something that they believe in and hopefully make a difference. People need to have a little more love, peace, and happiness in their daily lives.”