BY ERIC CHIU
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 18, 2009
Standing at center stage in a sparsely decorated rehearsal room at the Student Theatre Arts Complex, three cast members in MUSKET’s production of “HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” run through a scene that has them arguing with each other.
Will DeCamp, an LSA freshman cast member, defiantly strides toward another cast member and shouts “Are you a hippie?” directly into his face.
Immediately, the rest of the cast bursts on stage from the back of the room and starts performing a blistering rendition of the musical number "Hair." Backed by driving piano accompaniment from band member Chris Ranney, a Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, the cast frenetically dances and sings across the room’s makeshift stage — a half circle of blue tape on the floor — with cast members hitting their marks with a precision matched only by their intensity.
As the cast finishes the song, facing an audience of several production staff members and director Torrey Wigfield, a Music, Theatre & Dance senior, there’s an almost electric sense of vitality in the building. The unified vocals of the ensemble continue to reverberate throughout the room.
But the cast has more material to cover tonight, and they quickly move on to the next scene. There might have been time to worry about these things earlier, but the first show is less than a week away.
This weekend, MUSKET will take the stage at the Power Center for three performances of “HAIR,” the troupe’s fall semester production and the latest in a long tradition of diverse shows performed and produced by the group.
“HAIR” follows a tribe of hippies living in New York during the 1960s, coping with issues of sexuality, politics, religion and identity during the Vietnam War. The show was written during the decade in which it’s set, and since then has become a staple among musicals that challenge and explore American culture — a revival of the show has been playing on Broadway since March.
MUSKET itself has been around since 1908, when the troupe was originally called the Michigan Union Opera Company. In subsequent years, the group — which switched its focus to musicals, changed its name and allowed women to join starting in 1956 — has regularly presented a wide variety of shows, ranging from traditional works like “West Side Story” and “Evita” to more recent shows like “The Full Monty” and “Assassins.”
The MUSKET creative team’s decision to tackle “HAIR” stemmed chiefly from a passion for the source material — or, as Wigfield describes it, the drive to build something “awesome, righteous and kick-ass” from the original show’s foundation.
“I wanted something that would be fun, I wanted something that would stimulate creativity, I wanted colors, lights, sound, I want something that could be in your face,” Wigfield said.
“But really, what I wanted overall was … a piece of musical theater that has something to say.”
“HAIR” is Wigfield’s first show as a director and he admits that when he started at the University, he wasn’t a fan of the musical theater scene. It was the strength of the material of "HAIR," however, that drew him to the project.
“‘HAIR’ comes out of a different style of theater — a theater that is breaking traditions, that is breaking what a book musical could be,” Wigfield said.
“You look at things like ‘Oklahoma!’ or any Rodgers and Hammerstein show … they have brilliant, brilliant stories. And then, 'HAIR' comes out of nowhere and it’s fun and it’s engaging.”
Parallels can easily be made between the 1960s Vietnam War-era political climate in “HAIR” and the political climate of today, where the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regularly make headlines. Wigfield and the cast were especially conscious of the political relevance of “HAIR” — cast member Samantha Massell, a Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, has a close family friend who just finished a tour in Iraq — and how these themes are tied into the material.
“It’s funny — when I first found out I was going to be directing ‘HAIR,’ I got a lot of questions or suggestions about where I should set it,” Wigfield explains.
“(People said) ‘You should set it in 2009 in Iraq and make the hippies hipsters!’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’d be quite redundant,’ because I think as long as there’s killing — as long as there’s a disturbance of peace — the people are going to be questioning that disturbance in peace,” Wigfield said.
“And it’s very, very comforting to know that, 43 years ago, people were dealing with the same issues — not necessarily the same situation, but the issues: choice, freedom, love, power, sex, religion.”
The show’s diverse score gave the production team and musical director Jake McClory, a Music, Theatre & Dance senior, numerous options with the direction the group could take with the material. The songs in the show are backed by a full band and cover a variety of genres, from traditional show tunes and country songs to early Motown.
For “HAIR,” McClory wanted to maintain the best qualities of the original score while simultaneously building something unique. In crafting the score, McClory adjusted vocal arrangements and drew from both past productions of “HAIR” and music from the ’60s.
“I've been lucky enough to work with a cast that can jump from genre to genre, a cast with such unique voices that when they combine and sing together, it is incredibly powerful and moving,” McClory wrote in an e-mail interview.
“I've loved having the experience to not only work on this show but to familiarize myself with these different genres — not many shows use such a combination of styles.”
With its progressive political perspectives, "HAIR" has attracted its share of both praise and, most notably, controversy since its debut. Besides its readiness to flaunt numerous social and political taboos, the show’s first act ends infamously with the cast disrobing on stage. MUSKET’s production also includes a scene in which the American flag is used in a variety of questionable situations.
This production of "HAIR" makes full use of the group’s flexibility as a student-run organization, as well as the "14 and up" age disclaimer placed at the bottom of the promotional poster. Wigfield credited the cast for its willingness to go with the show’s riskier aspects.
“It’s incredibly encouraging to find that the people you’re working with are comfortable with what you’re doing,” Wigfield explained. “The audience might not always be, but it’s the chance you’ve got to take.”
Wigfield acknowledges that he can’t control how the audience reacts to the show’s controversial moments, too.
“What I can control is how honestly we support the text, what my visual picture is when we look at a scene and say, 'How can we bring this to life?' ” Wigfield said.
“And if that implies or if that includes going to places that might be a little shades of grey between right and wrong, then that’s a chance you’ve got to take.”
The group started the production process well in advance, assembling the show’s production team in February. In the intervening time, the team worked on various pre-production tasks — they choreographed dance numbers, planned rehearsals and learned the show's songs.
Once the team selected its cast, the process picked up speed considerably. The 19-member cast contains a diverse spread of students, ranging from freshmen performing for the first time at the University to upperclassmen with multiple shows under their belts. The cast members all share a love for performance, and their appreciation of the original show drew most of them to the production.
“It’s one of the few musicals I’ve ever heard of that are not narrative driven,” said cast member Brian Rosenthal, a Music, Theatre & Dance junior. “It’s not about the plot … it’s just about these characters and their relationships.”
Since being cast, the ensemble has rehearsed four hours a day for six days every week at the Student Arts Theatre Complex. Their rehearsal space isn’t exactly the most luxurious place — the far walls of the room are lined with mounds of props from past shows and assorted shoes and backpacks belonging to the cast. There’s ample space to run through material, but the rehearsal is occasionally punctuated by mechanical whirring emanating from the vents across the room.
The amount of content covered in each rehearsal varies. Nights dedicated to working on choreography might only cover a few songs in several hours, while sessions devoted to rehearsing scenes or songs could cover significantly more material. The work doesn’t stop after rehearsals, either — cast members often spend time outside rehearsal going over lines, listening to songs and practicing choreography at home.
“Every moment of the day you’re not learning lines, they’re simmering in your brain and you’re thinking about it.” Rosenthal said.
For the cast, at least, the dynamic nature of rehearsal helps to keep the process fresh.
“It’s been demanding, definitely, and I think one of the fun things about this show is that it’s constantly changing,” cast member Lance Fletke, an LSA sophomore, said.
“We get the first senses of the music and the blocking … making choices in our lines and how we present the show. And we could make a choice one night that really conveys the point and the message real well, but then the next night, it doesn’t do quite the job that it needs to do,” Fletke said. “So, you change and you morph and it’s not a rigid production at all.”
Simultaneously, the production staff handles a variety of behind-the-scenes tasks, ranging from running production meetings to advertising. For many members, the process behind assembling the show has its own appeal.
“We have weekly production meetings where everybody gets caught up on everything,” said associate producer Kathryn Pamula, a first-time producer for MUSKET and a sophomore in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the Ross School of Business. “Individual units are doing lighting, sets, sound, costumes and we regroup at this meeting … and it’s just definitely a team process.”
But what keeps MUSKET’s members going through their rigorous schedule? Being a full-time student is enough for most at the University, but balancing, at minimum, another 24 hours of work every week can’t help but seem grueling. For most of the cast and crew, it’s their passion for the creative process that draws them back every day.
“It’s something that we all enjoy being a part of. I mean, otherwise, we wouldn’t be here at all,” Massell said. “Right now, the show is my life … even though we get frustrated with each other and there’s ups and downs in the process of putting on a show, above all, I think we all love being here and we all love each other and we’re happy to pull our weight.”
It’s the first full dress rehearsal the week of opening night and the Power Center, MUSKET’s center of production for this last week, is a far cry from their usual rehearsal space.
The building’s 1,368-seat theater adds an enormous sense of scale to the performance setting with a multi-story steel scaffolding adorned with a tie-dyed cloth banner and band instruments sitting at the center of the stage. The mood throughout the theater is especially energetic, with cast and crew members milling throughout the space, trying out costumes and working with the lighting and sound.
Sitting in the audience and looking toward the stage at the culmination of months of hard work from the cast and crew, Wigfield can’t help but laugh and enjoy the moment.
“It’s everything: It’s extremely exciting, it’s absolutely terrifying, it’s beautiful.” Wigfield says. “To see the haze, to see the band on stage, ideas from the beginning, (it’s) incredible. It’s like getting everything you every wanted, it’s like Christmas and birthdays, but better and for 1,200 people.”
The process is still far from finished — Wigfield admits that things will get fine tuned until right before the first show — and as he walks back toward the stage, what that entails is easy to see. The band’s sound needs to get calibrated, the cast has to cut down their entrance time and countless other adjustments still have to be made.
But considering what the group has already done since they started working on “HAIR,” it’s hard to get too worried. After all, they’ve got a show to do.