I recently had a chance to speak with the delightful Diane Paulus, whom most of you probably know as the talented director of the current hit Broadway revival of Hair. Well, Paulus also recently took over as the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and I was interviewing her for an article that I was writing for artscope a local arts magazine.
That article is about the A.R.T.'s upcoming season, and Paulus's plans to shake up that 30-year-old institution, but I couldn't resist throwing in a few questions about Hair. The article comes out in September, but here are some musings from Paulus that didn't make it into the article.
EIKILFM: I have to say that you completely changed my opinion about Hair. I always thought it was this great score hampered by an overly fragmented libretto.
PAULUS: Well, we really did a lot of work on the book. We streamlined and focused it. During the Hair rehearsal process, I had this deep partnership with James Rado. [Rado was one of the original authors of Hair. His writing partner, Gerome Ragni, died in 1991.] I never talk
about it as a revival, but as a re-imagining of the original work. Jim
and I were joined at the hip, working on a way to craft a new version of the book. We built
a very trusting relationship, and there was this incredible combination of
Jim, who was there and lived it, and created the show, and me, coming in with a deep respect for the show, but also a fresh eye. Jim had every bit of
information about the show, from when it was created to how it's been
done for the past forty years.
EIKILFM: What's your personal connection to the show?
PAULUS: Well, I was born in 1966, so I wasn't really old enough to remember the 1960s. I always like to say that I missed my decade, because I really wish I had lived through the '60s. But I guess now I have the benefit of not having seen
the original show and getting hung up in my head about it was supposed to be. When
I got the call from the Public Theater, I had never seen a production of Hair or
even read the script, just the liner notes from the album. So when I started to work on the show, I had this deep love of that
wonderful music, and I had my fantasy about how the production would sound and what it would feel like, and how to revive the '60s from the inside out.
PAULUS: It actually started one step before the rehearsal process with casting. When I was asked to do the original concert version in 2007, I knew that we needed the right people, people who were going to invest themselves in the show not as actors but as human beings, fully relating to the issues. Of course, we needed people with great voices -- and great hair! -- but we really needed to know where their hearts and minds were. And that led to the rehearsal process, where it wasn't just a show but a cause, a mission, a communication that matters. And they took that process very seriously. And now, two years later, 23 of those original 26 people are still with the show. At first, a lot of them were daunted. They said, "Our generation isn't like this." But that was in 2007, pre-Obama, and I think now young people have realized that they can create change, and they're all like activists now.EIKILFM: For instance, the upcoming march on Washington.
PAULUS: That's right. We’re all going to
EIKILFM: What have you noticed about the audience response to Hair?
PAULUS: What makes me happier than anything is to see the young people, coming to Broadway and seeing and reacting to the show as if it were written yesterday. Because Hair really isn't a period piece. It's a show that says just as much about today as it does about the '60s. It says, "This is American history, but this is also what it means to be alive and a young person, even today." So you have these young people coming to the show, and they're owning it, and I just love that.
EIKILFM: Hair features a lot of audience involvement, and seems to invite the audience to participate, sing along, even dance in the aisles. A number of recent newspaper articles in both New York and London have lamented the deterioration of theater behavior. It sounds as though you might have a different take on that.
PAULUS: Well, I think there are different kinds of theater. Historically, theater hasn't always been this quiet, sit-down affair. It certainly wasn't in Shakespeare's day. Theater is like sports, you have golf and tennis over here, and the whole audience gets quiet, and you don’t make a sound. At the other end, you have ice hockey and everybody's screaming. But we never mix up golf and hockey. I honestly believe there’s a spectrum, even in theater. Are you going to talk at a Peter Brook production of Hamlet? Or The Seagull? Of course not. You have certain types of behavior that work for different kinds of theater. But my gripe is that people tend to say, "Well, that’s the way theater is. You have to be quiet." Everything doesn't necessarily have to be like The Seagull. You can have Hair or The Donkey Show. [Paulus's first production at the A.R.T. is a re-staging of her New York hit, The Donkey Show, a raucous retelling of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a 1970s disco club.] I think we have the possibility of letting other sorts of behavior be released, and enlivening what we think theater is and what it can do.
PAULUS: I love that those producers [Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel] who stepped forward and helped us make it, that they got their money back, and that means that they'll take that risk again.