Sunday, April 7, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Preview

Peace, love and 'Hair' coming to 5th Avenue

Seattle Times theater critic


Will preview Tuesday and Wednesday, open Thursday and run through April 21 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle. $12-$48. 206-292-ARTS.
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Gather round children, and I'll tell you the story of the mother of all American rock 'n' roll musicals, "Hair."

Yes, yes — I know you've probably had quite an earful of "Aquarius" ("This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius ... ") and some of the show's other infectious odes ("Let the sunshine / Let the sunshine in ... ") on oldie radio stations and TV ads. And the bell-bottoms, beads, granny glasses and fringed, leather jackets that constituted a new fashion statement in "Hair" are back in vogue — sort of.

And what's so shocking now about a bared derrière onstage?

OK, so it's not exactly a cutting-edge entertainment these days. But there is more to "Hair" than just recycled, patchouli-scented hippie-tripping.

And since many who will attend the 5th Avenue Theatre's imminent revival of "Hair" were not even born in 1968, when the show first propelled '60s-style peace, love and understanding onto Broadway (or in 1969, when it held forth at Seattle's Moore Theatre), a little primer is in order.

First lesson: "Hair" isn't just about free love, be-ins and the acid dreams of '60s flower children. It's also about the yawning generation gap between young Baby Boomers and their parents. And it's about opposing the Vietnam War, but getting drafted and sent to Nam anyway.

In Seattle, two community-concert versions of "Hair" were presented in 1992 and 1995, at the Pilgrim Center for the Arts.

But the 5th Avenue Theatre's "Hair" will be the first major professional revival here since the musical first bopped into town in 1969. ("Hair" also had a well-received reprise in New York last year, in the popular Off Broadway "Encores!" series.)

Staged by artistic director David Armstrong, the show will feature such exuberant Seattle musical stage talents as Cheyenne Jackson, Lisa Estridge-Gray and Benjamin Schrader, along with Rodney Hicks, recently in Broadway's "Rent" — a '90s rock musical with deep roots in "Hair."

To better appreciate the history and impact of "Hair," here are some additional stats and facts on the Broadway tuner that smashed all the rules — and made a big imprint on American pop-culture:

• Premiered: Oct. 29, 1967, at the New York Public Theatre. It later moved to a popular Times Square disco, the Cheetah, then reopened April 29, 1968, at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre.

"Hair's" debut Broadway run: 1,750 performances.

• Who created the show: East Village hipster-actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni wrote the book and lyrics; the music was by veteran composer Galt MacDermot

Future stars in the first Broadway cast: Diane Keaton, Melba Moore.

Future stars in other early productions: Keith Carradine, Nell Carter, Meat Loaf, Ted Neeley, Joe Morton, Ben Vereen, Andre DeShields, Joe Mantegna, Philip Michael Thomas, Ted Lange, Tim Curry, Donna Summer.

Seattle's connection: Former Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic director Daniel Sullivan was a stage manager for "Hair" on Broadway. Original cast member and current Seattle resident Shelley Plimpton met Sullivan through the show, and later married him. (They're now divorced.)

"Hair" numbers that became hit singles: "Aquarius," "Let the Sunshine In," "Easy to Be Hard," "Hair."

Position the original cast album reached on the charts: No. 1.

Pop artists who covered "Hair" songs: The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night, Carla Thomas, The Cowsills, Nina Simone.

The "Hair" song with lyrics by William Shakespeare: "What a Piece of Work Is Man" (based on a monologue from "Hamlet").

Censorship battles: Though "Hair" played without major incident in such cities as Seattle and San Francisco, there were public protests in Chattanooga, Tenn., Washington, D.C., and other cities.

In St. Paul, Minn., a clergyman released 18 white mice in a theater lobby in a plan to scare away patrons. (It didn't work.) In Boston, five Massachusetts Supreme Court judges saw a preview of "Hair," deemed it unfit for public consumption and issued a restraining order against the cast and crew. But producer Michael Butler fought the order all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court .

The high court ruled in Butler's favor, noting that a ban of "Hair" could have "a chilling effect on the right of free expression."

• What was so shocking? Take your pick: the lustily shouted four- and seven-letter words (some never uttered on a Broadway musical stage before), the positive references to psychedelic drugs, the incitement to challenge authority (and dodge the draft), the sassy homage to free love and interracial sex (in the songs "Black Boys" and "White Boys").

But the biggest bugaboo was the nudity — especially in the finale, when cast members who felt the urge stripped to the buff, and the audience was invited up onstage to boogie.

Tony Award nominations for "Hair": None.

Date of movie version: 1979 — a decade late, maybe, but acclaimed anyway. Directed by Milos Forman, it was a breakthrough for co-stars Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D'Angelo, and is available on video and DVD.

Most unusual, longest-running "Hair" revival: A version that played daily for two years in war-torn Sarajevo during the early 1990s.

In the midst of the harrowing civil strife there, the free show became a symbol of peace and endurance, for the artists who performed it and the audiences who risked harm to come see it.


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