Hair: we talk to the director of a new production of the iconic musical
“Gliddy glub gloopy, nibby nabby noopy, la la la lo lo
Sabba sibby sabba, nooby abba nabba, le le lo lo
Tooby ooby walla, nooby abba naba, early morning singing song”
They don’t write lyrics like that anymore, do they?
The lines come from Good Morning Starshine, a hit in 1969 for Oliver. You might also be familiar with the classic Nina Simone track Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, or the 5th Dimension singing about the age of Aquarius. What you might not know is that these plus another 38 songs come from the classic 60s musical Hair, later turned into a film.
The show first hit the headlines back in 1967 with its references to recreational drugs and free love, plus an infamous nude scene. Now, almost 50 years since Hair was first staged, Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre is letting the sunshine back in with its own production, directed by Jonathan O’Boyle.
Currently associate director at the London’s Theatre503 and trainee associate director at Chichester Festival Theatre, O’Boyle chatted to me during a break from rehearsals. I asked him how it felt to get his hands on such an iconic musical.
“It’s a bit daunting because you think about all the history that this show comes with. There have been countless productions of it across America alone so I was hugely excited and scared at the same time. It’s one of the greatest musicals ever written and has influenced so many other shows. It became a benchmark and pretty much invented the rock musical.”
O’Boyle believes that Hair revolutionised how people sing in the theatre. “The music is particularly brilliant. There’s not one bad song in it and there are 41 songs. The show was also one of the first to look at how social integration was represented in terms of race, homophobia, the environment and women’s issues.”
Even during the flower power era of late 60s and 70s, there were strict guidelines about what could and, more importantly, couldn’t be shown on the British stage. The Mary Whitehouse brigade came out in force to protest and ‘protect’ the public’s morals against anything deemed to be controversial. In 1968 however, the Lord Chamberlain abolished the censorship act in theatre. Hair opened in London the following day.
Now of course, very little content matter is off limits when it comes to the arts. We’ve pretty much seen everything. In that case, is Hair still relevant? O’Boyle thinks so.
“The show was right on the cusp of that new generation of theatre. Making it relevant now is tricky but one of the main plot points is the Vietnam draft. Young Americans going to war – against their will – far away from their own shore to fight for things they didn’t necessarily know about or believe in. Every US president from Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to Obama has invaded a country and gone to war in various parts of the world so the story of being against the establishment and the Government not always having your best interests at heart is still totally pertinent.
“Even in Britain we’re often at war in different places and not everybody knows why so that idea of pacifism and being active against a power that propels you towards something you don’t believe in remains very relevant. You update Hair at your peril because it’s so based in the culture of that era but we’re looking to bring more recent elements out in our production while still setting it in the 60s.”
One of the show’s most talked about elements is the nude scene. During the play’s early days, many (now) famous names shed their clothes on stage (it is rumoured that Elaine Paige hid at the back so nobody would see her). But today nudity in the theatre is much more commonplace, and has far less impact. As O’Boyle explains, it’s been a delicate balance making the scene fit without it feeling shocking or titillating.
“Hope Mill is a very intimate space so the audience/actor relationship is very special. But once you start taking your kit off it’s a much different prospect than doing it in a large West End venue. We’ve talked a lot about how to ease the actors into it. Nowhere in the text, lyrics or stage direction does it actually say that they take their clothes off. As it’s not referenced, it’s free to interpret anyway we see fit. However, rejection of clothing and being free with your body became such a part of 60s culture that we can’t ignore it so we’re looking at delicate ways to stage and light it in order to frame it within the space. The show will still have that moment but not in a gratuitous fashion.”
Even though times have changed, we Brits are still generally viewed as repressed, awkward and uncomfortable about things such as public displays of nudity. Is the point of the nude scene to ultimately challenge that?
“Britain has come such a long way with issues of race, equality and sexuality yet nudity is still a complete taboo because it’s still illegal to be naked in public so it’s still probably one of the more shocking moments in the show. Hair is such a wonderful theatrical experience because it’s infamous, big and dramatic. In the space we have it’s going to be intimate yet grand at the same time.”
The cast of 12 perform 41 numbers backed by a five-piece band. As well as the hits there is also a number entitled Manchester England which will add an additional element for North West audiences. Nevertheless, the city seems an unlikely subject matter for a musical set in New York.
“In the 60s, American teenagers were obsessed about living in Manchester and Liverpool because culture, music and fashion were developing so rapidly without the backdrop of Vietnam or the nuclear threat. They fantasised about a place where they could be free to live the life they couldn’t in New York. Manchester was like a city of hope for them. I think the song will go down well here.”
This is O’Boyle’s first collaboration with Hope Mill – and he’s impressed.
“I love it. It’s an inspiring, innovative home for artists to create theatre, art and music which is brilliant. It’s extraordinary what the team have achieved in just a year. Trying to create work outside of London is difficult so places like Hope Mill in a city like Manchester are imperative because it’s extending how we make theatre in this country.
“I worked at Sheffield Crucible Theatre and even they found it hard to get artists to move away from family and homes in London for too long so it’s tricky wherever you are. Manchester is so diverse and multi-cultural in terms of accessing art so, fingers crossed, things will change. It’s really important that we support theatres like Hope Mill as they support emerging artists of all levels and fields and the work is fantastic.”
Hair opens at Hope Mill Theatre on November 15, 2016 and runs until December 3, 2016. For more information, click here.
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