‘Hair’ goes Public with a trim

Musical opts for run in the park over Broadway

“Hair” is not headed for a Broadway revival. At least, not yet.

And if it does return, auds won’t see exactly the same show they saw in the ’60s — a decision blessed by the creatives but decried by its original Rialto producer.

When the Public Theater brought back the seminal peace-and-love tuner for a three-night concert staging in Central Park last September, most ducats were given out free on a first-come, first-served basis. The show became an instant hot ticket and, though the production was not open for review, all the major critics saw it and anecdotal response was strong.

In the inevitable chatter about what might happen next to the show, the potential for a Rialto run figured prominently. Instead, the Public has opted to present a full production of “Hair” under the trees again, as part of its annual Shakespeare in the Park season of free outdoor theater.

Much of the concert version’s cast, toplined by Jonathan Groff (“Spring Awakening”), will return, and those involved say the park is the perfect place for the flower-power rock musical.

Still, no one’s ruling out Broadway. “Clearly, there’s hope that it will have life after that,” says Public a.d. Oskar Eustis.

The tuner was significantly shortened and restructured for the concert, and that work continues as the creatives gear up for the return engagement, running July 17-Aug. 22. Director Diane Paulus worked with the surviving members of the original creative team, book writer and lyricist James Rado and composer Galt McDermot, on tightening the original’s loosely structured storytelling. (Co-librettist and lyricist Gerome Ragni died in 1991.) Some material was pruned away, while other snippets from the original Off Broadway version — changed in the move to Broadway — made their way back in.

Rado says all this work on a 40-year-old piece doesn’t faze him, because he himself has tinkered with the show over the years. ” ‘Hair’ has kind of this organic thing to it,” he says.

But unlike Rado, original “Hair” producer Michael Butler wishes the show had remained unchanged. “It’s been a running fight of ours for almost 10 years now,” he says. “I believe our obligation is to stay with the original production. People want to relive what they saw before.”

Last fall, Butler produced a faithful staging of “Hair” in Hollywood that was running at the same time as the Park concert in Gotham. That version won good press, but Butler says he was unable to interest Rado in a future life for it.

Instead, the “Hair” auds will see in the park has been trimmed down from the original Off Broadway version, which creatives say clocked in at around three hours. The concert staging ran about an hour for each of the show’s two acts, and the running time of the full production is expected to be roughly the same.

“Combining things together, we’ve come up with something that lets it have all the momentum and all the clarity it needs, and still remain faithful to the original,” Rado says.

“Hair” centers on a “tribe” of young hippies whose anti-war stance puts them at odds with the draft and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Along the way, the show addresses issues like sexual freedom, race and pollution, and for the act one finale, the cast famously gets naked. Widely known songs include “Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In,” “Frank Mills” and the title tune.

Often credited as the first rock musical, “Hair” originated at the Public Theater in 1967 and the next year, under Butler’s guidance, became one of the first productions to transfer successfully from Off Broadway to Broadway, where it ran more than four years.

A 1977 Rialto revival lasted only around three months. The 1979 pic helmed by Milos Forman gave the show’s profile another boost, despite its mixed reception and the general consensus it was made a decade too late. Or maybe a couple decades too early?

The Public’s concert version, timed to the musical’s 40th anni, clearly proved “Hair” retains a following. The long lines and overnight waits for the event rivaled such hyped park offerings as the 2006 production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” toplined by Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

“The demand for ‘Hair’ dwarfed that,” Eustis says.

With the concert serving as a successful trial run for the show’s creative team (led by legit and opera director Paulus), the Public responded to the aud’s fervor by programming “Hair” as the second of two summer productions in the park. (The first is “Hamlet,” from which “Hair” takes a prominent lyric.)

With a budget likely to come in at more than $1 million, “Hair” is a costly endeavor relative to other Shakespeare in the Park offerings. The show has a cast of 26 plus 12 musicians.

For a long time, the scheduling was up in the air. “I was pushing to do it this summer,” says Paulus, best known as director of long-running Off Broadway hit “The Donkey Show.” “It’s an election year, and guess what, we’ve been in a war that’s gone on too long. The moment is ready for this show.”

“It’s a show about the past, but in a way it has a deeper meaning now that we’re in a parallel situation,” Rado adds.

The artists note, however, that important elements of the show certainly play differently 40 years after the era in question. Many aspects of hippie culture have long since been co-opted by the mainstream — and it’s far more common in the legit world these days to bring a downtown sensibility uptown than it was in the boundary-stretching days when “Hair” first stepped up from Off Broadway to Broadway.

“The challenge is, how do you portray the soul of the show, which is what it means to be a hippie, without it looking like something you bought at Urban Outfitters?” Paulus says.

The fully produced version this summer, with a set by Scott Pask, will play up the natural setting of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.

“The heart of what we learned last time is not to make a ‘show’ out of the material, but to be honest about the event of these people sitting around in the park talking to this audience,” Paulus says.

Still, the Broadway potential for “Hair,” if it proves as successful as last summer’s concert, is clear. “I don’t feel like the Delacorte means it can’t exist anywhere else,” Paulus says.

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