For most of the first act, my jaw was open. I couldn’t stop looking to the people I came with to see if they saw what I was seeing. After the first few songs, I understood why there was a warning in the booklet given out at the door.
From a scene of all the actors pretending to have oral sex maybe 10 minutes in, to the first act ending with multiple actors standing on the stage with no clothes, I kept thinking to myself: “Is this allowed?”
“Hair,” an upbeat rock musical, was performed by Rowan University’s Department of Theatre and Dance over the past two weekends. Barefoot hippies graced the Tohill Theatre stage to sing about sexuality, war, drugs and racial tensions during the 1960s. The actors frequented the aisles of the theatre to interact with the almost-full audience, starting off by dropping petals down the aisles, joking with people sitting in the front row throughout the musical and at one point handing out bead necklaces even in the very last row.
The musical follows a tribe of hippies that live together. The main plot focuses on one who got drafted into the army, Claude.
Some songs spiraled off on interesting tangents, like “Easy to be Hard,” while others made social commentary of society in the ’60s, like “I’m Black.”
For the most part, the musical is lighthearted, but the messages it tries to convey are much heavier.
“On the surface it just seems like a fun, happy-go-lucky, feel good show, but it really does dig deep into a lot of things that people were fighting and struggling with in the ‘60s that we still struggle with today,” said Nicole Cusmano, a senior musical theatre major. “Talking about race, talking about homosexuality, the war and politics and people having to be shipped off to fight for something they don’t believe in.”
Cusmano played Jeanie, a pregnant hippie interested in Claude. She’s acted in seven Rowan productions before “Hair,” which is her final show before she graduates. She felt that this musical was a little different than ones she’d acted in previously.
“I feel like what separates ‘Hair’ from the past shows that I’ve done is just the closeness of the cast,” she said. “We always get along and we always have a good time, but this show particularly makes you have to love each other and get to know each other on a deeper level because in the show we are playing a tribe of people that live together and we have free love and we’re happy and we’re hippie. Being able to connect with the cast on that level I think is what brought this show above and beyond.”
It was hard not to smile at songs throughout because they were so comically over-dramatic. Though sometimes it went in unexpected directions, it always came back to a critique on topics relevant at the time it was made, some of which are still pertinent today.
The director, Christopher Roche, said “Hair” is a cornerstone of musical theatre. He explains that when “Hair” came out on Broadway in 1967, it was something that had never been seen before. It was the first big rock musical.
“[People] think it’s a pièce de résistance and it happens in the ‘60s and evolves with time, so that it resonates with not just people my age or older, but with students in college right now,” he said.
As for the surprising scenes that made up the beginning of the musical, Roche said there was a good amount of conversation that had to happen between him, the cast and the crew.
“There’s a nudity scene in ‘Hair’ at the end of act one and that was a conversation that had to happen and we did have it and we decided to—ya know, if it was up to the students, they would love to be naked, right? And it’s like, no, we are in school, we are in Glassboro, New Jersey and we need to respect our audience,” he said. “So we had them in flesh-colored underwear on the bottom and then on the top we had everybody, including the men, in pasties with black X’s over their nipples to sort of show that we’re protesting that we can’t even show our bodies.”
Another issue that came up was a song the African-American character, Hud, sings about racials slurs used against black people.
“I had that conversation with Niambi [Fetlow], who was so great to play the character of Hud, and she was so wonderful about taking ownership of it, in sort of saying ‘how dare you, how dare people call us these names,’” Roche said.
Coincidentally, the first night of the musical was the same day the large rally against religious demonstrator Aden Rusfeldt happened on Rowan’s campus. Most of the cast went to the rally and brought signs from the show.
“It pumped us all up. The energy was high even before we got on,” Cusmano said. “We were backstage and like ‘Oh my god, this show’s gonna be wild, I can’t believe this happened today. I’m so ready to go.’ It was crazy that that happened at the same time.”
Roche thought the rally happening the same day brought a sense of urgency to how the students approached the show that night.
“They got the protest signs that we use as props and they went down with some faculty members and they exhibited first-hand and in real life what they had been working on for weeks and were getting ready to do,” Roche said.
The theatre department rehearsed for “Hair” since the end of January. They had three-hour rehearsals five or six days a week. During this, they learned all the lines, songs, harmonies and dances, and eventually practiced in the theatre, adding in the lights and the band.
The show was fun to watch and every surprising scene and the catchy songs, like “Ain’t Got No” and “Going Down,” got me even more interested. It was easy to tell the cast were enjoying themselves.
“The cast loved the show so much and I saw every performance, they were able to maintain the energy of opening night every night,” Roche said. “So in that regard, the students really stepped up and just maintained that level of commitment and energy throughout the whole process.”
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