Anointed as the first rock musical, Hair took Broadway by storm in 1968, giving voice to a generation that came to be known for flower power, long hair, drug use, sexual freedom and anti-war protests. Hair also was the first show on Broadway with full frontal nudity.
With three performances of the tribal rock musical set for the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, most of what made Hair audacious four decades ago has since become mainstream. Yet despite a star-studded cast that includes Kristen Bell (Frozen) and Sarah Hyland (Modern Family) singing a playlist of instantly recognizable songs, it’s the close of Hair’s first act that still provokes most folks’ first question: What about the nudity?
“Yes, there will be nudity, and yes, it is the first time for full frontal nudity onstage at the Hollywood Bowl,” director-choreographer Adam Shankman confirms to the Weekly during a break on the fourth day of rehearsal, on July 24.
In the show, the moment is actually less than 30 seconds, during a song revealing the “tribe” members’ deepest hopes and fears, including being drafted to fight in Vietnam. They stand still as they bare their bodies, having already bared their souls. No one moves except to sing. Nudity onstage was not illegal in 1968, but moving while nude was.
After Hair, dancing nude bodies populated Oh! Calcutta! and The Full Monty built an entire show around the final full strip; in off-Broadway and experimental shows, nudity is commonplace. The New York Times’ review of the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair found the show’s brief nudity tame by today’s standards.
Still, the Bowl is usually family-friendly, and its potential audience of 17,000 is much larger than a Broadway theater’s. Hair producer Brian Grohl, who also produced Rent and Chicago for the Bowl, says he had anticipated questions about the nudity from the County Board of Supervisors, under which the Bowl operates.
“We were able to present them with documentation about the 2009 Tony Award–winning revival and The New York Times’ comments on the show’s nudity,” he says. “Also, before moving to Broadway, the 2009 revival had government-funded public performances in Central Park, which helped assuage the supervisors’ concerns.”
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As for whether Hollywood stars in the cast could be caught in compromising smartphone photos, don’t count on it. In the original 1968 production and the 2009 revival, Sheila, the role played by Bell, was notably missing from the nude scene. With a cast of 35, it will be easy to hide the production's name actors, or just have them sit out that scene.
The directors and producer admitted one issue remains about the nudity: How to handle the Bowl’s four giant video screens, which broadcast closeups throughout performances? Whatever the final decision, Grohl promises discretion. Under consideration: Discreetly scan only faces, or cut to a graphic of the Hair poster. Shankman leans toward going to a graphic, which will eliminate the video-screen issue and allow more focus on the performers, the songs and the show’s themes.
For Shankman and associate director/choreographer Zach Woodlee, it was these factors that lured them to take on the daunting preparations to mount Hair with 10 days’ rehearsal. They recruited a cast that, besides Bell and Hyland, includes Mario, Hunter Parrish, Jonah Platt, Amber Riley, Jenna Ushkowitz, Benjamin Walker and, in a nod to Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of Hair, Beverly D’Angelo; she starred as Sheila in the film, and here returns playing a mom.
Shankman, director of the 2007 Hairspray film musical and a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, emphasizes that Hair’s overriding themes of sexual exploration, amorous confusion and distrust of authority remain topical, pointing to the Occupy movement and the war in Iraq.
“Much of the choreography and staging is aimed at not just singing the songs but articulating the story and Hair’s themes that continue to speak to a new generation,” Woodlee explains as they discuss some of the challenges inherent in transposing a stage show onto the extremely wide, 105-foot Bowl stage and not having the actors upstaged by the orchestra sharing the shell. The solutions include the large cast and a multilevel construction where the action occurs.
Just before the interview, that construction and an artist’s rendering of the stage design are recurring reference points during the rehearsal in a cavernous church basement down the street from the Bowl. At one point, Shankman and Woodlee use the model to show six men where they will simulate parachuting out of a helicopter by leaping off the upper level onto padding below.
“Walking in Space”Backed by rehearsal musicians, most of the performers were arrayed across the floor working on the drug- and sex-infused song “Walking in Space.” Shankman moves like a ringmaster among the singers as dancers swirl across the floor. Shankman interrupts the song, requesting a slower tempo from the musicians. The music resumes, slightly slower, and now the words roll out over the music like a slow saunter on a hot afternoon.
When the song ends, Woodlee’s note for the cast is to be enamored of their bodies, not look at the floor. “It’s not about a lost contact,” he admonishes gently, igniting a twitter of laughter. The lyrics of sexual discovery and the iconic melody continue to provide a muted soundtrack for those walking to the parking lot.
Although he thinks the issue of how to handle the nudity unduly draws attention, Shankman admits that, when he was offered the job, it was his first question, too.
Hair is at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd. Aug. 1-3 (800) 745-3000, hollywoodbowl.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to a song called “My Body.” The song title is actually “Walking in Space,” and the phrase “my body” is repeated in the lyrics.
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