Forget the nudity for a minute. Think of the songs that blanketed the airwaves in the late 1960s: “Easy to Be Hard,” “Let the Sunshine In,” “The Age of Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine.” Or the ubiquitous title song of “Hair,” rendered with shampooed innocence by the Cowsills or assaultive zeal by the original cast of “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.”
Sure, reviews of the 1968 Broadway opening all noted the moment near the end of Act 1 where some cast members doffed their clothes. But that wasn’t why “Hair” ran four years on Broadway, sold 3 million copies of its original cast album and opened the door to such rock musicals as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Grease” and “The Rocky Horror Show.”
Director Ron Law knows the iconic moment is the first image people get if he mentions Theatre Charlotte’s production.
“We were at IKEA Saturday morning for a random act of culture by the Arts & Science Council,” he said. “We did flash-mob performances of ‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’ in the mattress section” – very apt for a musical about free love – “the food court and the checkout. A clerk asked where the song was from. We told him, and he said, “Oh yeah, naked hippies.’ ”
Though the fabled moment will take place, audiences are likelier to be startled by the songs “Colored Spade” – where Hud, a militant African-American, runs through racial epithets about blacks – or “Black Boys”/“White Boys,” where singers celebrate the touch and taste of members of racial groups other than their own.
“The show pokes holes through all sorts of stereotypes: gender, racism, sexism,” he said. “There’s a song about the environment, with all the actors coughing at the end because the air is impure. Have we solved the problem of pollution yet?
“Claude (who doesn’t want to go to Vietnam) tells his draft board he’s a ‘faggot,’ because that’s the worst thing you can be called in this setting. That’s still an issue.”
Law had to explain to his cast, all of whom were born after the original show closed, how a draft board worked. (Some had seen the 2009 Broadway version, which won a Tony for best musical revival.) He was uniquely positioned to do so: He entered Kent State University during the Summer of Love in 1967 and left just after the Ohio National Guard killed four students on campus in May 1970, an act often described as the end of the ’60s.
“I remember the album being passed around dorm rooms,” he said. “When I was a kid, a hit song from a musical was ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ something (older people) listened to. Now the hit songs were rock songs my friends listened to at gatherings.”
Though Law calls this “a rock revue,” he says the musical has more to it than music. The dialogue refers to Shakespeare and other authors, and the characters all have back stories: Costumer Jamey Varnadore made cast members invent those for themselves before assigning them clothing.
Or a lack of it. There will indeed be a brief, dark moment where the garb comes off, according to the actors’ dispositions.
“They’re singing about freedom, and the most freeing thing you can do is to take your clothes off,” said Law. “There’s nothing really sexy about it at all.”