Was Fullerton “great”? Looking back 10 weeks…

I just went back to the first review I posted here on the Hair Blog concerning the Fullerton production and I can’t believe I wrote that review just over two months ago! So many of my feelings have changed about HAiR for so many different reasons. I wanted to add an updated comment both for others who might stumble on the post and also for myself, as a historical footnote. I decided to make it a fresh post because people who aren’t getting RSS/Atom feeds might not go back and read it (but here is a link to the original post in case you want to 🙂 .)

When I went to see the Fullerton production in March, it was the first production of HAiR I had seen since 2002 when my own company, OpenStage Repertory Theater of Santa Cruz, did two one-week runs in the spring and summer. The production was initially directed by a guy named Ed Levy (who is extremely talented by the way but, in my opinion, didn’t really “grok” Hair), but many things went awry and I ended up co-directing the first run and completely directing the second run. Our production was (a) amazing for the audience and (b) very strange, and often quite sucky, from an artistic perspective.Â

I digress for a paragraph: I think I have one relatively unusual trait as a director, and that is the ability to be supremely critical of my own work without letting it get me depressed. Critical reviews don’t bother me, they encourage me to do better. When a reviewer says “such-and-such was pretty bad”, others around me often say “Oh s/he doesn’t know what s/he is talking about”, but usually I am saying (at least to myself), “of course, that really WAS awful, wasn’t it.” If I do something good, I usually am aware of that, and if I do something that is mediocre (or even bad), I am just as aware of that. Of course, reality is that things are usually not black or white, but shades of grey, and most of the time, some parts of a show are good (possibly even really good) while other parts may suck rocks. Those are the times where you have to be honest enough to come to grips with the mistakes you made. That makes you better in the long run.Â

Ed rewrote much of the script of HAiR for our production, trying to turn it into the movie of HAiR (which was the version he had first seen growing up as a young boy in the late 70s). Having seen HAiR on stage prior to that only a few times (several college productions) along with the original Broadway and Los Angeles productions in 1969, 70 and 71, I knew that what Ed did wasn’t really HAiR, but I had no awareness of what SHOULD be done to make it better. I tried to fix some things, but the damage was pretty severe and I had arrived at the party, so to speak, quite late. It was all I could do to get the show on stage satisfactorily with all the challenges we faced.Â

As I said, however, the audience reaction was unbelievably great. Does this mean we did a “great” show? No, it is much more testament to the fact that HAiR is such an amazing show that it is highly resilient to what anyone (director, author or actor) might do to it. You can put the tribe in 70’s disco clothes, have your Crissy emulate someone from American Idol, make your Berger resemble Big Gay Al from South Park, or even shave everyone’s heads, and it is still, in some form, HAiR. When you get to the end, and the audience can sing Let The Sun Shine In with the tribe, most errors are forgiven and forgotten, and all anyone in the audience will remember is “what a great show this is! The power of the music, both Galt MacDermot’s stirring melodies, and Rado’s and Ragni’s marvelous lyrics, as well as the power of its message, transcend anything you can do to hurt the show (well not ANYTHING, but certainly a lot of things).Â

In the past 10 weeks, I (along with my wife Barb) have auditioned many people, chosen a cast/tribe, started directing the show, and we did extensive preparation for all of this!  Boy, are we prepared! We visited the Hair Archives. We sought out members of the original Broadway tribes and other tribes to get advice about staging, performance, attitude, structure, meaning, etc. We read all (all four!) books published on Hair, bought countless videos about the era (even though I grew up in the 60s, I needed my own refresher course) and watched them, and learned, learned, learned! I think as a director, everything is about learning and preparation. If you know what you want to see on your stage and in your show, you have a better idea of how to make that happen.

So back to Fullerton. When I wrote the review 10 weeks ago, my frame of reference was limited. I had most recently seen what I consider to be my own relatively poor production of Hair in Santa Cruz (and that almost five years ago), which, despite my reservations, sold out every night and was universally loved by the audience. Did that make it a good production? No, of course not. I can be honest about that. The tribe was well-intentioned, and fairly talented, but they were given a schlocky version of the show to perform, and while the audience loved it, the show wasn’t HAiR in any real sense of the word.

Since then, I have seen two much better productions (Bishop O’Dowd High School and Sacramento’s Artistic Differences), along with a number of video archive productions at the HAiR Archives (which can only be watched there, no taking them home, sigh 🙁 ) Some were good, some better than others, some downright silly or even awful. We learned a lot about what we SHOULD do in our production and also a lot about what we SHOULDN’T do.Â

I mentioned some of the things I found problematical in the Fullerton College production in my initial review, including the weird “dramatic” ending with no sense of redemption. That didn’t work for me at all, but I still thought it was a good production overall. I even used the word “Great” in the title of the post. I am not so sure any more.Â

Having seen two productions recently that I consider better, I think my initial enthusiasm for their production was more a kind of overreaction to just being able to see the material once again. It was that “Oh, this is HAIR! It MUST be GREAT!” reaction that some people tend to get when seeing shows for the first time, or the first time in a long while.Â

In retrospect, I still think Tom Proprofsky as Berger was terrific and I think their overall singing was very good. However, my sense of their choreography has changed dramatically. The production had a lot of highly structured dancing, done in a style similar to typical Broadway shows. I no longer feel that the choreography at Fullerton was excellent, at least in terms of HAiR (although it was very definitely a great demonstration of dance technique and the dancers were terrific in that sense). I have come to believe that truly great HAiR choreography is going to look much LESS like great organized technique and much more like improvisation (even as it isn’t improvised at all). This was captured much more successfully by both Bishop O’Dowd High School and Sacramento’s tribe. Learning about the things Tom O’Horgan and Julie Arenal did in 1968 to communicate with the original performers about how to do this was enlightening.

I also think that Fullerton’s set was a blindspot on my part. My initial reaction was “wow”, but my current reaction is “ow”.  The best set for HAiR will look like a hippy hangout, with junk all over the place, and no particular rhyme or reason to what is contained within. At least, that is my opinion. Fullerton’s production tried to make itself as much about the set as it was about the hippies, and that just isn’t supposed to be the case (at least not IMHO).Â

I also have noticed that almost no one wants to do “the show” anymore. Everyone needs to change it, add scenes, drop scenes, drop music, change the dialogue, etc. Completely ignoring the question of legality for the moment (the Tams-Witmark contract clearly says this is a violation of the contract unless you get written permission and that is almost never given), I raise a different question: is it wise? The authors wrote a script that stood the test of time on Broadway. I played in countless cities in the U.S.A. and across the world, and nobody ever said it was a bad show (in fact at the time it became the 6th longest running Broadway show in history). Why do we have to meddle with it so much? No one ever rewrites My Fair Lady or West Side Story (oh, unless they try to do the movie, instead of the stage production! 😉 ) or Sweeney Todd. So why the passion for rewriting the work of Ragni/Rado/MacDermot?

I don’t know why people do this but I have some guesses. I think lack of understanding may be a principal cause. You can call me a traditionalist, but I think the show is terrific as it was presented. There are few minor weaknesses, but nothing that needs to be changed wholesale. If you don’t understand it enough to feel that you need to rewrite it, maybe you need to learn more about it. Learn about the techniques of how it was created and first presented. Understand WHY some things weren’t said, and some things were. Giving in to the desire to radically change the show, at least in my opinion, is ample evidence that you just don’t “get it”.Â

Will your production be good if you do this? Maybe. Will it be HAiR? Probably not.


Jon Rosen





This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007 at 10:10 AM and filed under Uncategorized. Follow comments here with the RSS 2.0 feed. Skip to the end and leave a response. Trackbacks are closed.

8 Responses to “Was Fullerton “great”? Looking back 10 weeks…”

  1. Nina Dayton said:

    Thank you, Jon, for this interesting and thought provoking post. I have never before considered how odd it is that people so frequently want to change Hair. It is such a fact of life for me that I have come to take it for granted, although it often bothers me a great deal, and it is odd, as you say, that people don;t dive into many other musicals with the desire to do things in a new and different way.

    Is this because Hair comes out of a more “living” theatre background than more traditional shows? Is it because surviving author Jim Rado continues to rewrite? Or is it something else that moves people to want to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, when directing Hair?

    I look forward to hearing your, and others, thoughts on this.

  2. bleurose said:

    Hi Nina!

    Thanks for commenting on the post. I think there are several reasons for this need to “tinker” and you already hit on a few of them.

    Yes, certainly the genesis of the Broadway show had something to do with it. Tom O’Horgans very approach to the show was unconventional so why would we expect directors to then take the show as Tom staged it and simply abide by the book?

    Second, the show had a culture of change even as it was being produced. Unlike most shows which open on Broadway and stay put for many years (if they are long-run), maybe going out on a single National Tour, Hair opened within four years at something like 15 or 20 venues all around the country and world simultaneously. There were productions in LA, SF, Chicago, Las Vegas, Seattle, Miami, Boston, Baltimore, etc., plus several tours and a half-dozen or more overseas productions. The producers (Michael, et al) had a hard time keeping up with all of these productions and from what I have read, many of the productions already had variations so it is hard to say what the true “definitive” production was. And as you pointed out in another post, the authors created a script for license which was different from the Broadway show, and there was also the “book” which as you pointed out (and I knew) is nothing like ANY production of Hair that was ever produced professionally.

    So this leads people to assume, “well, if they can do it, why can’t I?”

    Add to that the fact that Hair is about subject matter that is, on the one hand, relatively dated and, on the other hand, still tangentially relevant (but not 100% right on), it is hard to know whether it should be treated as a period piece and produced “as is” or if it should be treated as a modern, but slightly aging beauty that needs to be restored and upgraded to make it shine again. And every director has their own opinion on this so it doesn’t surprise me we see people who want to “fix it”.

    Of course, the desire to “fix it” means that you think it is broken. That is where I think people should start. If someone can find something “broken” about the show, I would like to hear about it. As I said, the show was a marvel when it was first produced, and it doesn’t seem to me that it is necessary to fix anything (okay, maybe a line or two here or there, but not radical rewrites).

    I have heard interesting things about the Mountain Play production which we are going to see this Sunday. Some of them surprise and worry me, others make me very interested to see what they have done. We know for a fact that they have “tamed down” the show. Their web site makes it clear that the song Sodomy has been cut (something that I don’t understand unless Tams have given them permission to do it) and of course no nude scene (but as has been pointed out, that has NEVER been part of the script and so is clearly optional unless you just want to stay authentic with the original).

    We shall see this Sunday! I am definitely looking forward to it!



  3. Rhea said:

    Hey Jon,

    This is Netty from Nimiipuu in Sacramento. I, too, found your comments intriguing and thought provoking. You and Nina have already touched on some of the things that I think contribute to HAiR’s rewriting, but I want to share with you my opinion on the matter.

    I think you may be right that sometimes a director’s need to “rewrite” the show comes from a lack of understanding of the material. However, I also think that, to an extent the script and the history of the show demand a sort of “rewriting” on the part of the director, and actually the entire tribe. This is not to say that it NEEDS rewriting; it’s certainly a brilliant script as it is. Nor do I believe directors should actually take such extreme liberties as to literally rewrite in their own words. Part of this invitation to use a very liberal interpretation of the show, I think, comes from–as Nina pointed out–so many rewrites by Rado and Ragni. For instance, in our production we added back a scene from the original Broadway script that was cut from more recent versions. I felt like the scene should never have been cut to begin with.

    Sometimes rearranging and cutting occurs to avoid confusing the audience. It’s debatable whether changing the show for this reason is honorably justifiable, and that depends very heavily on how it is approached. I think sometimes it’s acceptable and sometimes it’s an insult to the show and what it symbolizes. Again, it depends.

    HAiR requires a willingness on the part of the tribe to improvise (within the bounds of the storyline, of course). It requires that we, as artists, explore and think way, way outside the box. This show was such a great controversy at the time of its development; its creators pioneered the movement of rock musicals to the mainstream. It was an artistic embodiment of the hippie movement as well, and as such it was in your face with shock value, with anger, with passion, with a sort of child-like appreciation for life’s simplest commodities, without fear of saying what some people were afraid to even think– what the government didn’t want anyone to think. This aspect of the show, for me, is the thing that most demands artistic revelation in whatever way it occurs for the tribe. The most important part is that this revelation is in line with what HAiR represents, and that it does not change what the show says, but molds it to the personality and vision of the tribe, allowing them to find peace and synchronicity with their message, while all the while keeping its initial intention intact.

    Beads, Flowers, Freedom, Happiness,

    Netty (“Rhea”)

  4. bleurose said:

    Rhea/Netty, Hi! (If you have seen my other posts, you know that I thought your show was VERY good!)

    I am curious which scene you think Maggie added back into the show from the original Broadway script? I didn’t recognize that.

    You didn’t do the Young Recruit scene or the movie scene (which were both cut from the Tams script at one time, the movie scene is now back in as optional and the Young Recruit is no where to be found).

    If you are referring to the scene that you guys added at the end of the show between Claude and Sheila, that was never in the Broadway production. At best, your version was a somewhat convoluted version of the scene from the Off-Broadway production (which is SO unlike the Broadway production that it is hard to describe).

    I believe, instead that the scene came more or less from the “HAIR book” script which was published in 1969 and which, as you will know if you have followed Nina and my comments, has never been produced anywhere. That version of the script is nothing like any Hair that has ever been seen on stage (unless some production in some small theater actually used it without permission but certainly never on Broadway or any other first-run production).

    My problem with the scene is that it disrupted the flow of the show significantly. I think I said in my blog post that it “took me out of the musical for 10 minutes”. Possibly that is because I am so familiar with it that the scene just didn’t feel familiar enough, but trying hard to be objective, I thought it added way too much exposition at a point in the show where the LAST thing Tom O’Horgan would have wanted is exposition. Let the audience see what happens and they will figure it out. The whole “Relax, Jeanie”/”Claude, I can’t do this” interaction seemed like a writing from a soap opera, not a rock opera.

    As I said, I don’t think it harmed the show (and in fact, I loved your production) but I don’t feel it added anything valuable and as I said, just stopped things in their tracks for a while, until the show came back around and hooked up again.

    Of course, that’s just my opinion. As Dennis Miller used to say, I could be wrong 😉

    Peace and break a leg this weekend!


  5. bleurose said:

    One more thing, by the way. It is, I think, an error to believe that Hair is improvisation. That is something that became quite clear from my research at the Hair Archives (which I highly recommend to ANYONE who is going to direct Hair).

    There is folklore that Hair was improvised on the spot and that the show was changed every night. That is wholly false. There were improvisations within the script, and there certainly were movement and staging variations from show to show. There also were differences in the actual script between shows that appeared in some cities, but that was almost exclusively driven by the authors, Ragni and Rado, who barnstormed around the country appearing in (and occasionally changing) various first-run productions. The rest of the tribe generally did not improvise the show… it was scripted and loosely followed night after night after night. The show that I saw in Los Angeles had almost all the same scenes that the show I saw in New York had and the few differences were authorized by the authors.

    My complaint earlier was that the authors are the ones who should be doing this, not directors or tribes. Yes, Jim Rado still modifies the script (witness the recent Toronto production which didn’t earn kudos from anyone!) but at least he has the right and authority to do that (and even that may be questionable ever since his co-authoer Gerry Ragni passed away in the early 90s, may he rest in peace and freedom and love).

    As I said before, I may be a purist or traditionalist, but I think directors and tribes should confine their interpretations to the normal things that we usually do in theater; i.e., staging, choreography, acting interp, lighting, effects, etc. And yes, maybe in some shows cuts are necessary (you need to trim a song, or even take one out because of difficulties doing it, etc.)

    But generally, we should stay away from rewrites. That should remain the province of the authors, even in a show like Hair. After all, it is STILL a musical, and a damned great one at that.


  6. bleurose said:

    One One more thing 😉

    A great contrast (this idea just popped into me) is CHORUS LINE. Chorus Line was COMPLETELY improvised by the cast. There was almost NO script when the show was developed (unlike Hair which had quite a highly structured script that indeed got rewritten several times, but was still a script).

    Chorus Line was developed in workshop with Michael Bennett, and the actors told their stories which ultimately (with some adjustment) became the script.

    So, with a show like that, with a REAL history of having been almost completely improvised, why is there no passion to rewrite THAT show like there is in Hair? Every chorus line has its own stories, so why not eliminate Morales and replace her with something more topical, or more local, or maybe (if some director is smoking crack) “interesting” ;-)?

    Just a question… 🙂


  7. Rhea said:

    I’m sorry I sent you on that rant over the “Broadway/off-Broadway/book” thing. That was a typo. Maggie said it was from the off-broadway script… I don’t know how she got her hands on it, but I applaud her for doing so. I wouldn’t disagree that it is a strangely written scene, but it was an essential part of the evolution of the show.

    Onward to the next topic… I didn’t say the show was improvisation. I said it requires the tribe (tribal leaders, really) to be open to improvisation. This should not, by any means, change the storyline or tamper heavily with the script, as it is brilliantly written. The symbolism in this show is outrageous; if the script changes too much that is lost. But, for christ’s sake, these are hippies we’re talking about! The actors have GOT to know how to loosen up, have fun with it, and–sometimes, when it’s appropriate–allow themselves to run with something.

    Back to the thing of the added scene for a minute: I wonder how audience members who are not familiar with the show feel about the scene. If it makes them feel awkward, it should. I don’t know how Lindsay, Christian, and Joelle feel about it, but when I played Sheila it was REALLY awkward! If that discomfort is transferring to the audience, we’ve done our job. On the other hand, if to a completely oblivious, unbiased spectator the awkwardness of the scene is due to its presence rather than the scene itself, perhaps it is not doing the show justice. As I am a tribe member, I have no reference point except how it felt to do the scene, in which case it seemed to give a little more continuity and understanding as to the character I was playing (merely from an actress’ perspective, of course). But you are not wrong in your judgements; one’s opinion may be popular or unpopular, but it can never be wrong.

  8. herbangirl said:

    Hey y’all,

    Interesting stuff going on here! I thought I’d jump in real quick to give my two cents’ worth about the added scene. I am not a purist/traditionalist, and I don’t think HAiR is a perfect show. The transition out of the Claude/Berger scene into tribe going home into Good Morning Starshine has always bugged me, both as a tribe member and an audience member. After talking with Jon via email about this, I looked at the “book” script (apparently not an off-Broadway script, my bad) and I felt that the scene between Claude, Sheila and Jeanie really fleshed out those relationships in an interesting way, commented subtly on how Berger and Sheila’s relationship, allowed for some breathing room before Good Morning Starshine and helped to set up the climax immediately after the song. I knew that some HAiRheads would not like it, but I went with my gut and I liked the scene’s effect on the characters and the Act II tension build.

    As I’ve said before, I’ve been involved in productions that were very faithful to the original, and what ended up happening was that the tribe loved the show; the audience liked it okay. Why that is, I don’t know – maybe it was something about those particular productions. But I geared my show to include and embrace and draw in the audience as much as possible, to carefully walk that line between challenging the audience and alienating them.

    Would I do the show differently another time? Of course! How could I not – I’ll have a completely different tribe, in a completely different time in history, on a different set and with a different perspective (one of the gifts of age!).

    I love that there’s room here at this blog for open, respectful, passionate debate! I’ve learned a lot here, both during and after the show. Thanks to everyone for that.


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