HAIR, the groundbreaking 1968 tribal love rock musical, captured the energy, psychedelia, and grooviness of its turbulent time. The landmark show, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt McDermot, took Broadway – and the entire country – by storm.
But does HAIR still speak to a 21st century audience?
The critics at the 17th Annual Cappies of the National Capital Area certainly thought so! On June 12th, 2016 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, they awarded Best Musical to Woodrow Wilson High School for its outstanding 2015 production of HAIR. In fact, HAIR took home four Cappies that night: Best Ensemble in a Musical, Best Female Vocalist (Lorin Kayla Holland as Dionne), Best Supporting Actor in a Musical (Zac Nachbar-Seckel as Berger), and Best Musical.
The Cappies, or “Critics and Awards Program,” is a program through which high school theatre and journalism students are trained as critics, attend shows at other schools, write reviews, and publish those reviews in local newspapers. At the end of the year, the student critics vote for awards, which are then presented at a formal Cappies Gala. There are currently fifteen Cappies chapters across the US and Canada. Each is made up of a cluster of high schools ranging in size from ten to sixty schools. The National Capital Area was the first Cappies chapter, established in 1999.
This year, the competition at the National Capital Area Cappies was tough, but Wilson’s HAIR came out on top. We spoke with the show’s co-directors, Harriet Bronstein and Jill Roos, along with actors Ben Topa (Claude) and Zac Nachbar-Seckel (Berger), to learn how this 1968 show could make such a splash in 2016.
TAMS-WITMARK: First of all, congratulations on the success of your production! How did you choose HAIR as this year’s musical?
JILL ROOS, Co-Director: Eight years ago, I saw a beautiful production of HAIR [at The Theatre Lab in DC]. When I saw it I said, “We have to do this at Wilson!” So, pretty much for the past eight years or so, I’ve been asking Harriet if we could do HAIR. Finally… it was the right year.
TAMS: And it took some convincing? Harriet, you were skeptical at first?
HARRIET BRONSTEIN, Co-Director: Yes. But I wound up loving it. What you read about [HAIR] is that for everyone who does it, it’s kind of this transcendent, amazing experience. And I’m a pretty cut-and-dried kind of person, so I was like, “Yeah… right.” But it was an amazing, transcendent experience! (Laughs)
TAMS: How did the two of you first start working together?
JILL: Harriet was my director in high school… she is my mentor. After college I came back to Wilson, and we’ve worked together for several years.
TAMS: And this year, you managed to agree on a show from 1968?
BEN TOPA (Claude): I was skeptical when they first announced the show. I… thought, “It’s kind of dated.” But as we rehearsed, and as we talked about the show, I changed sides. I do think it that it works today. Yes, we’re not in the Vietnam war, but a lot of the themes are still there: how to keep peace in a time of violence, how to be autonomous in the face of an intrusive government, how to make your own decisions when it seems like people are making decisions for you.
And I think that people are struggling with this sort of identity crisis today. Claude has a song: “Where do I go? Who do I want to be?” Questions like “Who do I want to be?” are timeless. The setting is obviously not contemporary, but it’s like Shakespeare… the themes transcend time and transcend setting.
TAMS: So you’d say HAIR is still relevant?
ZAC NACHBAR-SECKEL (Berger): Absolutely… on a macro scale and on a micro scale. On the macro side, it’s about a group of people who are dissatisfied with the socio-political norm… it touches on pretty much every social disparity you can conceive. On a micro level, it’s the relationships between the characters in a time of uncertainty and fear.
HARRIET: Our kids really, really bought into the whole idea. I know that they all felt that the issues that were brought up in HAIR are still really relevant.
JILL: I have never seen the kids so in touch with a piece [as they were with] HAIR. Unfortunately, the themes of HAIR still remain true. I think every single day we were reminded of the racism that still exists, and the violence, but also just the beauty of this group of so many different kinds of people coming together… and that spoke beautifully to the cast.
TAMS: So ultimately, the actors were on board with it?
HARRIET: I’d say this is probably the favorite show ever of kids that we’ve done. It was just a wonderful experience. They all loved it.
JILL: The kids still post about it every day! And the people who saw it, young and old, were obsessed with the show. If you see people that age do something that’s so powerful onstage, it speaks to everyone… they can identify with that. I think people viewed the students as incredibly brave, and were invested in every single performance.
HARRIET: And the ensemble is on stage almost the whole time.
JILL: The ENTIRE time! You know, I have such a problem with people who say, “I was just in the ensemble.” And then they’re in HAIR, and they’re like, “Oh, my god. Can I just be in the ensemble?” (Laughs) I mean… it’s their show!
ZAC: I think, doing any play, you develop amazing friendships, but HAIR in particular—you’re working with a whole ensemble who’s pretty much onstage for the entire show. So you really have to engage with so many people, and you really form a strong group.TAMS: What about the content of this show? Some people fear it’s too controversial.
JILL: I guess I’m much more willing to take scary risks of doing a show like HAIR that a lot of schools may not be willing to do. We had to have a lot of discussion about certain words and phrases…
HARRIET: We talked a lot about that with the principal. I think any school that’s preparing to do HAIR needs to talk to their administration.
BEN: Initially people [in the cast] were offended. There’s a lot of shocking material. But… when we saw what the play was really about, and we saw what beautiful art we were making… [we were] more willing to forgive the provocative material, and see it… more as a unit of art that make[s] a broader point about individualism and about where we were as a society in the 60s, and where we are as a society today.
The play has very extreme provocative content, but it’s about people. Audiences forget that when they say, “Oh, well… I don’t want to see HAIR because it’s got a lot of drugs.” But it’s not about drugs; it’s about people.
TAMS: So addressing the controversial material is the biggest challenge?
JILL: Actually, I think the biggest challenge is… it’s not a show that necessarily has a very strong plot. But that challenge actually became the best part of the show! The kids were forced to create their own story, to create their own plot, and they did.
HARRIET: The kids had to find a lot of this themselves. It’s not the kind of show where [the choreographer says], “Put your arm up here.” It’s not that kind of show. From the very first day, when we started choreographing “Aquarius,” they were told, “You’re moving from here to here, but you need to find your own way.” They had to find things themselves, and I think that’s one reason maybe that it was so meaningful to them.
BEN: It did require more homework… and a willingness to understand the art in its context. Because there’s [virtually] no story, you really need to master the context, so you can best interpret the characters and their motivations, which are never really explicitly mentioned.
JILL: I think by having to do that, it really becomes your show.
TAMS: Zac and Ben, you were playing characters close to your own age. Could you relate to them personally?
ZAC: Oh, yeah. George Berger… was definitely my favorite role in a musical. I felt like I embodied him better than any other character; it was a good fit. Ben is always sort of known as the romantic charming guy. That’s more Claude, I think. I was always the comic relief. I think I’m a very physical actor, so I developed a physicality for Berger that immediately worked and resonated with the audience.
BEN: In a lot of ways to me, Claude is the most human of all the characters, because he has these conflicting feelings. I think everybody’s been in a position where they ask, “Right now, am I being who I want to be? Am I making myself proud? Am I making my family proud?” So I did relate to Claude in many ways.
There are aspects of every character you can relate to. With Berger, you can relate to being frustrated with society, and wanting to blaze your own trail and really not listen to anybody. With Sheila, I can relate to wanting to do something to enact change and not really knowing where to start, because she goes to protests, she talks a lot, but to what end?
These people are struggling with identity crises in different ways, and as adolescents – among the cast – we have all grappled with our identities and wondered what we want to be and who we should be, and are they the same or are they different?
TAMS: What about the rest of the creative team?
HARRIET: We had a wonderful choreographer, Nikki Gambhir, and production designer, Dan Iwaniec. And the lights were out of this world! The show, visually, was a knockout. The lighting designer, Max Doolittle… we were incredibly lucky to have him. And our set and costumes, designed by Dan Iwaniec, were amazing.
TAMS: And the music? HAIR is available with a full orchestration, but you chose to go with just keyboard, bass, drums, clarinet, and guitar. Why was that?
HARRIET: Our music director, Matt Jewell, had a rock-and-roll attitude toward the whole thing. It was rock and roll all the way for him!
ZAC: It was awesome. I remember we were rehearsing for the Cappies performance… and one of the few tips Matt had was, “Don’t worry about sounding pretty. That’s not what it’s about. Focus on the energy…”
BEN: “Be happy, go crazy, sing the way you feel.” And that’s really refreshing. It’s something that very few shows give you the license to do. And I think it makes it a lot more authentic… it makes the songs a lot of fun to do, and it makes it easy to do them honestly.
TAMS: Wilson High School is unique in many ways. How was Wilson the perfect place for this show?
HARRIET: Well, we are very lucky that we have a diverse population, so we were able to do HAIR.
JILL: Wilson is the most diverse school in the city. We are not a suburban school; we are an inner city school with lots of different kids. These kids had to go home, do the research, and learn about this time period. And it was challenging, but it was the good kind of challenging.
TAMS: Months after your production, your cast went to perform at the Cappies! What was that like?
BEN: Everybody was excited to be there… we were SUPER excited to perform! Traditionally, Wilson does not win things at Cappies. (Laughs) Which was fine because we do it for ourselves; we don’t do it for the critics. But it certainly is nice to get recognized.
ZAC: This year we finally got our big break!
JILL: I remember seeing them in the dress rehearsal, first time through… and just being in awe of those kids because they were just doing it full out. And then, watching them do it on the Kennedy Center stage… I know how much this mattered to them. When they came offstage, and they said to me, “Jill, I’ve never felt anything like that,” I was like, “Okay, I’m done.” (Laughs)
[They] got to experience something that other people don’t get to… they didn’t take it for granted that they got to perform on the Kennedy Center stage. They knew what that meant.
TAMS: And then, of course, they won four awards.
JILL: Their acceptance speeches were about theater and how it can change. And it was the same weekend as the Orlando shooting. So they just understood how this show is still relevant, and they talked about that in their acceptance speeches. I will constantly be impressed by this group of kids. They just understand what theater can do, and why this show… why so many people still connect to it.
BEN: It felt like a family experience. We were just all so happy together… it speaks to the power of the play to create a family of an ensemble.
ZAC: I think it brought people together in the cast. It has definitely had a lasting impact on me.
JILL: History teachers have come up to me now and told me that they talked about HAIR in their classes. It started a conversation. And this show opened doors to kids exploring plays that are “important.”
Everybody that I’ve talked to who has done HAIR (and my younger sister happened to be in the production that I saw eight years ago) says there’s something about this show that changes you. And I was like, “Okay, that’s theatre talk… whatever.” And then it happened. I’ve never felt so proud in my life… and so sad for a show to end.
I mean, I was fighting for eight years to get this show done, and I think it’s the perfect high school show, I really do. It’s about everything that they’re going through.
It is, strangely enough, the perfect high school show.
All photos by Judith Licht, courtesy of Woodrow Wilson High School