Arts & Culture

Harvard goes to Broadway

6 min read

Students see A.R.T. director’s production of ‘Hair’

Ten minutes after pulling out of Cambridge on a bus bound for New York City, Davone Tines ’09 turned to his classmate Jordan Reddout ’10 and said, “I really like the prospect of this group of people going to Broadway to watch a musical.”

By “this group of people” Tines meant 42 Harvard undergraduates who signed up through the Office for the Arts to make a 14-hour round-trip journey on March 5 to the final dress rehearsal of a new Broadway production of “Hair.” The show’s director, Diane Paulus, extended the invitation to the students because she, too, liked the prospect.

“It’s not only about a Broadway show,” Paulus said. “It’s also about the combination of undergraduate creativity and the opportunity to be exposed to and inspired by working professionals. When I was at Harvard, I got excited by and inspired to pursue a life in theater and the arts. I want to make it feel possible for them, too.”

The $15 tickets for the trip sold swiftly.

In part, that’s because Paulus, who graduated in 1987 and is the new artistic director at American Repertory Theatre, already ranks high among performance students here. “I love Diane. She’s awesome,” said Olivia Benowitz ’09, a history and literature concentrator who has been involved in 56 shows since arriving on campus. “She knows Harvard, and she knows the way the system works. She’s open to a lot of things.”

For this busload of mostly theater junkies, skipping classes to spend an evening in the Big Apple at a Broadway musical was too delicious to pass up.

Salena Sullivan ’12 explained her reason for being on the bus this way: “New York? Broadway show? $15? Who wouldn’t go?”

During the four-hour drive to the city, Reddout and Tines lodged a pillow between them and drifted off. Others chatted or studied for exams. At one point, three singers broke into a harmony-driven a cappella version of Beyoncé’s hit “Single Ladies.” And still others watched — and sang along to — DVDs of “Mamma Mia!” and “Dreamgirls” provided by Dana Knox, production coordinator of the New College Theatre and, along with director of the Memorial Hall/Lowell Hall Complex Eric Engel, the trip’s staff chaperone.

Zoe Sarnak ’09, a molecular biology concentrator, worked on her senior project, a musical she wrote called “The Quad.” For her, the trip to “Hair” was fieldwork. “‘Hair’ is close to the paradigm I want for my musical, even though I wasn’t part of that generation,” she said. “But ‘Rent’ is my beyond-it-all. It’s my ‘Hair.’”

During an informal survey, students called out some themes in the show: “Hippies!” “Sex!” “Drugs!” “Anti-establishment!” “Anti-parental control!”

Most knew about “Hair” through their parents, some of whom were hippies. “My parents are proud of me for taking this trip,” said one Californian.

“It’s probably a little dated, but with the war going on in Iraq, it may be more timely,” said Emily Kaplan ’09, a social anthropology concentrator who was in a production of “Hair” in elementary school.

Toward dinnertime, as the bus neared the city, Knox handed out tickets and told everyone to return to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on West 45th Street no later than a half hour before curtain. Most showed up earlier.

Written in the mid-1960s by James Rado and Gerome Ragne with music by Galt MacDermot, “Hair” grew out of the downtown avant-garde movement and became Broadway’s first rock musical. The language, fashion, and hairstyles of “the Tribe” — a group of Greenwich Village friends at the center of the story — fuel the show’s exploration of racism, war, sexual liberation, rebellion, drugs, and activism. Although it never garnered a Tony Award, “Hair” made an indelible mark on musical history, one that Paulus hopes will affect young people today.

“There was a not-too-distant past when the youth culture felt entitled and motivated to express opinions about their country,” she said. “What I love about ‘Hair’ is that the young people in it love America. Hippies loved America. They cared enough to do something.”

Harvard students today may not face the same social problems as the characters in “Hair,” but they delighted in a psychedelic theater experience that asks audience members to “turn on your eyes, turn on your ears, turn on your skin,” and features nudity, electrified music, strobe lighting, actors vaulting into the aisles, and, finally, a stunning image of war dead.

After blasts of applause at the end, the cast invited the audience to join a “be in” onstage. At least one Harvard student made her way into the raucous crowd and danced not too far from Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public Theater, which produced “Hair” in Central Park last summer and originally presented the “American tribal love-rock musical” in 1967 before it went on to Broadway.

Back on the bus, the air was buzzing. Conversation popped from seat to seat. Someone sang lines from “Let the Sun Shine In” and “Good Morning Starshine.” Hao Sun ’10 was smiling. “I felt very emotional, not just about the songs, but about the content,” he said. “War and love are relevant no matter what.”

Benowitz offered her own comments about the production: “Diane kept it in a very real place. She doesn’t alienate you. That’s the brilliance of her style.”

The show got Sarnak, the fledgling composer, thinking again about her own musical.

“As a writer, you sometimes can forget the power of the visual,” she said as the bus headed north through Harlem. “Obviously, ‘Hair’ is wonderful, but Diane did something more to it.”

In the end, Kaplan, who earlier wondered if her generation would find meaning in the anti-war message, had her answer.

“My generation reacts very differently to big social issues than the generation in ‘Hair,’” she said. “But my generation isn’t being drafted to Iraq. We do less protesting and more organizing, and we’re more willing to work with ‘the man.’ I think we’ve come a long way.”

Indeed. That night the students had taken a trip from Cambridge to New York City, but also from the 21st century — where the president of Harvard is a woman and the president of the United States is African American — back to the Age of Aquarius.

Alicia Anstead is editor of Inside Arts magazine and was the 2008 arts and culture fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.