‘Hair’ entangles audience in 60s conflicts

By Larissa Gula

Director David Truskinoff hopes he can not just entertain, but also inspire his audiences to act like the characters in “Hair.” “Hair”

Now through Sunday

Diane Paulus

Heinz Hall

Pitt Arts Tickets $27.50-$62.43 (must be purchased by Thursday at noon)

Tickets $20-$69

412-392-4900 or www.pgharts.org

Director David Truskinoff hopes he can not just entertain, but also inspire his audiences to act like the characters in “Hair.”

The show follows the lives of a tribe of long-haired hippies in New York City. Claude, his friend Berger, their roommate Sheila and their companions struggle to balance their own beliefs and their relationships with their conservative families with rebellion against the war and the politics of the time.

Truskinoff hopes that the musical’s look at the ’60s counterculture movement will inspire young people to raise their voices.

“During the 1960s, younger people in their teens and twenties and college age were so much a part of the political goings and the protests,” Truskinoff said, remembering the Civil Rights, feminist and hippie movements of the time.

“They had such a strong voice. Sometimes, unfortunately, it isn’t the same today … It can only be a good thing for younger people to see that now and to revisit what the movement was about. I can only hope to get it sparked up again,” he said.

The award-winning musical originally opened on Broadway in 1968, pushing boundaries the same way its subject matter did. The show’s use of “slang, profanity, nudity and overt sexuality,” as well as the presence of a racially integrated cast on stage created a major stir and was incredibly progressive for the time, said Richard Teaster, manager and director of Pitt’s Men’s Glee Club.

One act even ended with a nude scene, creating commotion in a culture where simply growing out one’s hair was a radical notion.

Though the show came from a different time period, the issues and ideas within it remain powerful and important today, said actor Josh Lamon, who plays several characters in the production, including Claude’s father, Margaret Mead and a member of the Tribe.

“It’s great because young people are introduced to this era that shows the hippie movement,” Lamon said. “It isn’t just hair and flowers, it was a protest and was about how important it is to stand up for one’s belief.”

Lamon’s hardest job is to act as Claude’s father, a conservative who wants his pacifist son to join the Vietnam War.

“We’re so different,” Lamon said. “I actually base the character off of my grandfather. [Claude’s father] is a conservative Republican who believes we have to fight the war no matter what, and he pressures his son to go to Vietnam. To play this character is challenging for me, but it is interesting, especially because I see older generations relate to the parents in the show.”

Considering recent events in Egypt and even the current political divide in the United States, the messages in “Hair” and the views of all the characters remain incredibly relevant as people struggle to make themselves heard today, Lamon said.

The music in “Hair” is just as important as the story. Teaster mentioned in an e-mail that the songs that presented their messages in ways that were less “in your face,” such as “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” can still be heard on oldies stations today.

But the ironic songs were not received well at the time it came out, Teaster said.

“From a purely musical perspective, the show was not well-received by such legendary Broadway composers as Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rogers,” Teaster said. “Bernstein remarked, ‘the songs are just laundry lists.’”

The music has also proved to be a major influence on more recent works, Teaster said.

“I think the work influenced other pieces which would incorporate more rock idioms such as ‘Tommy,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and even shows as recent as … ‘Spring Awakening,’” he said.

Working with the show now creates fond feelings of nostalgia for Truskinoff, who began working on “Hair” immediately after the end of the revival tour of “Rent” last year.

But portraying the turbulent time period these songs came from is an immense task which required time and research long before production began, Truskinoff said.

In addition to trying to make the show as authentic as possible, Lamon also sought to maintain the atypical interaction between the cast and audience actually pulls the audience into the show.

“At the end of the show, the entire audience is invited on stage to dance with us,” Lamon said. “It is remarkable to see people let go and hug each other, and to look out and see people dancing in the aisles and holding hands. You don’t get that with other shows.”

Even the 10-piece band gets into the show, standing on stage rather than sitting in an orchestra pit and allowing interaction between the instrumentalists and the characters, even though the band isn’t always a key part of the plot.

While all of the musical’s themes are delivered in an entertaining fashion, Truskinoff approaches “Hair” with respect, feeling that it allows serious commentary on issues such as the war today and where civil rights issues stand.

“The underlying themes remain real today and are very serious,” he said.