by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot
Burning Coal Theatre Company
September 10-27, 2009
At the Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School
224 Polk St., Raleigh
Guest director Mark Sutch has assembled a youthful, attractive, and talented cast for Burning Coal’s upcoming production of Hair – the political bombshell of the 1968 Broadway season and a 2009 Tony-winning revival currently on Broadway. Sixteen North Carolinians, including two requisite grown-ups (not to be trusted if over 30), and two New Yorkers imported for the lead roles of Berger and Claude complete the Burning Coal cast of this tuneful, groundbreaking show. Hair, apart from the adult subject matter and brief nudity at the end of Act I, may be remembered most for its many hit songs, including “Aquarius,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” “Easy To Be Hard,” and “Let The Sun Shine In.”
One of the songs from the score, the cryptic “Three-Five-Zero-Zero,” specifically references the brutal, seemingly unending Vietnam War. (American involvement there began in the 1950s and continued to the mid-1970s.) More specifically, the title may have referred to the iconic beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s anti-war epic Wichita Vortex Sutra, which Ginsberg dictated into a tape recorder while driving alone, cross-country to Wichita, Kansas, in 1966. A line in the poem, “Viet Cong losses leveling up three five zero zero per month,” referred to U.S. government estimates at the time of the rate of enemy fatalities. In Wichita Vortex Sutra, Ginsberg movingly laments the loss of all young lives, and the loss, too, of the power of poetic language to change anything – “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/in the valley of its own making.”
The Burning Coal production is a powerful draw for a broad demographic: for those who were around back then, for unrepentant Woodstock wannabes, for seekers of greater insight into an era about which the old folks may have tended to be tightlipped, and for those coming-of-age young people who may inexplicably gravitate – with the aid of GPS, texting or Twitter – to a time portal to the decade of profound cultural angst, deep national mistrust, a re-examination of “freedom,” and – as Mr. Sutch puts it – “the movement, the impulse toward activism and the need for community.” Sound familiar? Not only that, it is an energizing evening of showstoppers that have as much punch today as they ever did back in the flower power days of the 60s.
After a tumultuous rehearsal period in the fall of 1967, Hair premiered for a six-week run in the historic Astor Library building in New York’s Greenwich Village, the inaugural show in the new home of Joseph Papp’s now landmark Public Theater. Later, after the sale of the rights to a new producer, the recruitment of a daring new director, Tom O’Horgan, many rewrites, added songs, deleted songs, and a limited run in an uptown discotheque called The Cheetah, the piece made it to Broadway, opening on April 29, 1968, in the Biltmore Theater. It was a solid hit. Tony nominations, a cast album Grammy award, chart-topping releases of some of the show’s songs, and simultaneous multi-city productions in the United States and Europe soon followed.
Mark Sutch commenting on his first exposure to a local production of Hair, while growing up in Iowa in the 1980s: “It really changed my view of what theater is capable of doing. It is a very ‘knowing’ piece. It wears its theatricality up front. Nothing is hidden. That was really exciting, and of course the score is amazing.” Amen, brother.
Dropping in on a rehearsal of Burning Coal‘s production, I can bare witness to earnest young faces seated around a piano, their voices raised in a vibrant chorus of “Let the Sun Shine In.” The temporal dislocation was sufficient to give this writer, himself a long ago East Village habitué, quite an emotional karmic shock.
See it, but be advised. Burning Coal’s stated mission is “to produce literate, visceral, affecting theatre that is experienced, not simply seen.” Hair particularly lends itself to this concept. Audience members will be encouraged to participate and may find themselves being relocated or asked to sit on the floor at certain points during the show. Hence comfortable, suitable clothing is recommended. Be there!