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Folding the Flag

Director Dave Landis discusses the meaning of Hair.

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The world was a very different place when Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical made its Broadway debut in 1968. The civil rights movement was in full swing. The Amboy Dukes' hit song "Journey to the Center of the Mind" made an acid-washed plea for listeners to "leave your cares behind, come with us and find the pleasures of a journey to the center of the mind." RFK, heir to the throne of Camelot, was assassinated shortly after a fund-raiser for his seemingly unstoppable presidential campaign. Three astronauts made space seem accessible when they orbited the moon in the Apollo 8 space capsule. Bushy-headed flower children consumed drugs and preached their righteous messages of love and peace in the streets of New York and San Francisco, while 715 oil spills worldwide generated tremendous ecological concern in certain quarters of the American counterculture. Nixon promised to reestablish wholesome American values when he succeeded LBJ as president of the United States, and a bloody little war fought for reasons most people didn't fully understand raged out of control in a faraway place called Vietnam.

Hair, a musical which substituted psychedelic rock for stodgy show tunes and advocated chemically enhanced mind expansion, free love, and the symbolic desecration of the American flag, was the natural offspring of this turbulent era. But what does this loosely woven be-in of a show mean today? Only a month ago it was, at the very least, a curious museum piece whose innocent messages of "harmony, understanding, sympathy and love" made it seem far less subversive than it originally was. But after the September 11th attack on Washington and New York, everything changed. The themes that drive this musical are seemingly at odds with the mood of a flag-waving country determined to take revenge on the perpetrators. America isn't feelin' too groovy right now, and it's anybody's guess how the superficial anti-patriotism of Hair, which opens at Playhouse on the Square this weekend, will be received.

"Thank God we had a flag in prop storage," says Dave Landis, director of the Playhouse production, noting at least one significant physical change in the current American landscape. He laughs, shrugs, and explains that the show's prop master had gone out searching for a flag only to discover they were sold out everywhere. Landis is not entirely convinced that now is the best time to perform Hair. On the other hand, he's certain that the piece offers a great deal of insight to a nation on the brink of war.

"I was 5 in 1968, so I don't really remember Vietnam," Landis admits, adding that his incredibly young company was surprisingly unschooled in the sociopolitical history of the 1960s. "We brought in a professor from the U of M to talk to us about Vietnam. He told us that Vietnam had been incredibly popular for the first three years. It had a very positive spin for the first three years. Now everybody is like, 'Hey, let's go to war.' But I have to wonder where we are all going to be in three years."

"I went and saw the traveling Vietnam Memorial when it came through town," he continues, "and as I looked at that sea of names I couldn't help but wonder if sometime in the near future I'd look at [another memorial] and see the names of half the cast of Hair there. There's a line in the show, 'Our eyes are open.' We can't go into this [new war] blindly."

The blink-and-you-missed-it nudity in the original production of Hair -- as well as nonjudgmental references to acts like sodomy and pederasty and its full-on embrace of the drug culture -- caused quite a stir in '68. While the nudity may not be a big deal these days, here in the Bible Belt it's still difficult to broach certain subjects on stage.

"From the beginning, the whole nudity thing has been an issue," Landis says. "People were constantly asking, 'Are you going to do it?' Well, since September 11th I haven't had to worry about that. Certainly theaters are more and more often trying to make their plays PG-13, and I understand that. We have to do that if we want to stay in business. But I would love to put a big banner in the lobby with this list that goes on and on of things [in our production] that people might find offensive. People need to know that if they are coming to see Hair; they aren't going to see Mame."

But offending the easily offended is not Landis' primary concern. "It's important for 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to see how [in the '60s] people their age dealt with what we are getting ready to go into. It's not advocacy of that kind of behavior, it's just saying, 'If you are going off to war, little boy, you might as well know what you are getting into.'"

Through November 4th.

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