Musical tries to stick in new political climate

The question hanging over the Broadway transfer of “Hair” isn’t whether the 1967 flower-power tuner can still speak to contempo auds. The uncertainty hinges in part on whether the $5.8 million transfer about anti-war hippies retains the same urgency in the age of Obama as it had in the waning days of the Bush administration.

There’s also the daunting challenge faced by the creative team of translating the show from its memorable outdoor setting in Central Park, where “Hair” played last summer, to inside the Al Hirschfeld Theater, where it opens in a commercial transfer March 31. Producers are taking the risky bet that theatergoers will be willing to pay Main Stem prices for a show they could have seen gratis last summer, when the extended outdoor run of the Public Theater’s staging became a hugely popular New York cultural event.

“That concern was on two levels,” acknowledges Oskar Eustis, a.d. of the Public, a producer of the Broadway incarnation alongside commercial partners Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel. “Is this going to change the market completely and make this hot ticket not a hot ticket anymore? And then artistically, will having a paying audience change the nature of the event?”

The new staging reps the second time a production of “Hair” has originated at the Public and moved to Broadway. The show, centering on the political convictions and interpersonal dramas of a tribe of young hippies, preemed at the Public’s downtown home in 1967 before shifting to the Rialto the next year.

The new version has been trimmed by director Diane Paulus and the surviving members of the original creative team: book writer and lyricist James Rado and composer Galt McDermott. (Co-scribe Gerome Ragni died in 1991 and Broadway helmer Tom O’Horgan died Jan. 11. A 2007 Los Angeles production, overseen by original producer Michael Butler, was more faithful to the show’s 1960s iteration.)

Early box office for the latest Broadway version has been strong — not on the level of the million-plus preview weeks of revival competish “West Side Story,” but still indicative of a solid aud base. The tuner played five previews in its first sesh on the boards, pulling in just over $400,000 and playing to houses at 86% of capacity.

That’s a relief to the producers, who have weathered a nationwide economic dropoff that began in earnest the day after the park production of “Hair” closed in September.

Commercial producer Elizabeth I. McCann, who teamed with the Public on “Passing Strange,” was attached as the lead commercial producer of the Broadway staging, but she had trouble raising money for the show. Richards and Frankel stepped in a few months ago to pick up the slack.

“It was harder to raise money, and it caused some stress and some tension,” Eustis says. “But we got it figured out.” (McCann remains onboard and credited in the program, with the production presented “by special arrangement” with her.)

Meanwhile, Paulus, also the incoming a.d. at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., grappled with repositioning the show in the new zeitgeist — and under the roof of a Broadway house. She and set designer Scott Pask considered replicating the park onstage, but nixed the idea.

“The most significant thing about the outdoor setting was that it unified the actors and the audience,” Paulus says. “So the question became, how can you effect that community environment indoors?”

She and Pask liked the 1,400-seat Hirschfeld because its single mezzanine is easily accessible to the actors. Thesps can clamber up ladders and past theatergoers sitting in the side boxes to mix with auds on the balcony, so no one is left out of the community vibe.

Fittingly for a tuner whose opening number is “Aquarius,” the Hirschfeld has a Zodiac-inspired design on its ornate ceiling.

Instead of re-creating the outdoor setting, the creatives imagined the tribe taking over the Hirschfeld a la the students who stormed Paris’ Odeon Theater in 1968.

On a fake back wall — textured with brickwork details that aren’t actually part of the Hirschfeld’s architecture — a large image of a sun has been painted, in a nod to “Let the Sunshine In,” the tuner’s familiar closing number. “It’s this big mural that wraps everything,” Pask says.

The raised platform on which the band plays is built around a 1950s truck bought on eBay. A collage of aged rugs covers a large part of the stage and spills out into the house.

“I saw the floor as a pair of hippie patchwork jeans,” Pask says.

Although Paulus acknowledges the change in the country’s political outlook since the last time she staged the show, she believes “Hair” is no less relevant.

“Nothing will compare to last year in terms of the pressure of that election summer,” she says. “But this economic crisis we’re in has replaced that political crisis in a very similar way. It’s as much of a challenge to complacency as the last administration was.”

So far, preview audiences seem to be joining the party as much as they did in the park, where theatergoers got up to dance onstage with the actors at the end of the show. Just as many do the same at the Hirschfeld, creatives report.

If the musical continues to sell, it not only could bring coin to the coffers of its commercial backers, but it also creates a Broadway-based revenue stream for the Public, which got a similar pick-me-up from the long-term success of Public offering “A Chorus Line.”

“We’re not risking any of the Public’s money, but a considerable percentage of the profits will go to the theater,” Eustis says. “That could be very significant for us, particularly in these economic times.”

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