In 1967, the Public Theater's production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical hit the theater world like a martini spiked with mescaline. The show's sensational embrace of the sixties counterculture struck a nerve with hippies and squares alike, and the production ran for four years on Broadway, garnering two Tony award nominations (but losing to 1776, of all things, in both categories). Some four decades, three Woodstocks, and one 40 Year Old Virgin later, the quintessential rock musical is back on Broadway, following a critically-acclaimed run at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last summer. Judging by the packed houses at the Al Hirschfeld theater, the Age of Aquarius still has considerable cross-generational appeal, and this month the production accomplished the seemingly impossible: recouping its entire $5,760,000 investment, becoming one of the fastest recouping musicals in Broadway history.
One of the revival's highlights is the funny performance delivered by Andrew Kober, who does triple-duty as a member of the Tribe, Claude's Dad, and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. We spoke with Kober recently about drug use, the perils of audience interaction, and the cast's participation in the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. on October 11th.
Did you have an appreciation for the music of the era before getting cast in Hair? Not particularly, honestly. When I saw the casting notes for it, I didn't know what the hell to sing. My parents listened to a lot of music from the '70s when I was growing up, so went in for my first audition I sang, "New York State of Mind." That was the best thing I could come up with that was a rock song. I was told later by our casting director that I really didn't sing it well at all, which I kind of sensed as I was singing it. So, at the callback, I sang "Hey Jude," which is a little more ethereal and I was a little more comfortable. And I got to rock out a little more. I really didn't know the music [in Hair]. I kind of knew the songs that are in the public awareness—"Aquarius," "Let the Sunshine In," and that stuff—but beyond that, I really knew almost nothing about Hair.
Can you tell me anything else about the audition process? It was unique for me. It was the first open call that I ever went to. I have an agent, and for whatever reason, my agent couldn't get me an appointment for Hair, but I was feeling like a good, proactive actor that week. So I thought, "Oh, I'm going to go down there. I can be in Hair."
I always thought those open calls were just publicity stunts. Yeah, it turns out most of our cast was found through those open calls. They weren't looking for Broadway-types, really, especially for our first run in the Park. It was so astonishing to me that I was cast because I had some really embarrassing faux-pas. I was auditioning for Claude's dad, which is the role that I'm playing now, and I hadn't read the script and didn't know anything, but I knew that Claude sang a song called "Manchester, England." I spent a lot of time—really more time than was taken reading the script—learning a Manchester dialect for his dad. I did this whole scene with this really spot-on, north country, British dialect, and the producers were like, "Okay, so that was great. Uh, Claude and his character are from Flushing, Queens, so let's try that again." I just flagellated myself. And then for my first pass at Margaret Mead, the drag role, I did it with this really shoddy British dialect—I was really into dialects for this callback, I guess—and they went, "That's great, she's not at all British, let's lose that." It's still a bit astonishing to me that I convinced them to put me in their play.
Andrew Kober as Margaret Mead in Hair. (Joan Marcus)
One of the beautiful things about Shakespeare in the Park is that it's not a huge tourist thing. It's really for New Yorkers and was certainly founded so that New Yorkers could come and see great theater for free in the Park, which is wonderful. Here on Broadway, we're able to reach a broader audience. People are coming in from out of town who saw the show 40 years ago or are familiar with the music or have never heard of it—it's just what they happened to get tickets—and they're coming and responding really well. You know, it's strange—now we have billboards and posters and stuff, and I think, those of us who have been around since the beginning, we feel sort like it was an accident. We never meant to be in a Broadway show when we auditioned for Hair. We were auditioning for a three-night gig at the Delacorte, and then it kept on getting bigger and bigger. I'm certainly still looking around thinking, "I don't know how I got here, but I'm glad I am." I'm sitting in my dressing room right now in a Broadway theater—wow.
Last week, the show performed at 102 percent capacity. Well, that's good. It's easy to take for granted, but I have to remind myself, this doesn't always happen. Even when we were in the Delacorte, we were so loud every night that we were all kind of nervous because it was so well-received by audiences and critics in the Park, everyone was worried that once we moved inside, it was going to lose that magic. Is anyone going to want to see it? But, it turns out, people still want to see it. So, to look out and see a full theater with people standing in the back, and in about 25 minutes the lottery's going to happen outside my dressing room window—the lottery for the $25 tickets for tonight—and I hear people screaming their brains out when they win these tickets. The enthusiasm of the people who come to the show is incredible and it's easy to keep up the energy and do it 8 times a week.
Have any of the people involved in the original production come to see it? Yeah, a ton of them have. The show was written by Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni and Galt MacDermot. Gerry Ragni passed away a few years back, but Jim and Galt have been with us every step of the way. Jim actually played Claude in the original production. They've been with us forever, so when we get a line about "levitating the Pentagon"—like, "I don't know what 'levitating the Pentagon' is"—he's like, "Oh, I was there, here's what happened." It's perfect for perspective to have them there.
During any long run, it's common for the cast to bond. Because of the nature of this show and the tribe, do you feel like the relationship between the cast members is any deeper than you've experienced or any more intimate? Yeah, we're all walking around saying, "This isn't normal, this has never happened." I think it's a testament to the material, really, because we have to give so much of ourselves, so much of who we really are, to the show, that we get to know each other in a really meaningful way. Even outside of work, we spend almost all of our time together. Our Mondays are spent together, before the show, after the show, between shows. We're together, which is great. I mean, really doing any show you're going to bond with your cast, there's no way around it, but there's something about this tribal element of the show. There's 26 of us on the stage almost the entire time together, so we really learn to trust each other and to know each other's impulses and instincts so that we're safe and we know we can take risks physically and emotionally and everyone has our backs. We know and trust each other more than people we've known our entire lives, some of us.
Did anyone have to do any research on the various substances ingested by the characters? No one was required to do any research. At no point did anyone sit down and say, "You know, you guys should really try doing this," but I can tell you that a lot of the cast certainly has some experience with some of the substances mentioned in the show. Certainly not everyone in the cast knows everything about everything, but there's sort of a general knowledge of at least a couple of the things that we're talking about in the show. You know, we're all in our 20s and we're all people.
There's a lot of audience interaction in the show. Can you share any of the more surprising things that have happened? It doesn't always go well. Today, at the matinee, there was a lady in the second row, dead center, who was just taking pictures. She fully had her camera out, was taking pictures, which isn't really cool. There's a thing in the playbill that says "Don't do this," so, really, don't do that. To me, I think, "That's a $220 seat —enjoy the show! Watch the show!" So anyway, one of the ushers caught her and deleted the pictures and that was fine. But, I went out, and the first song of Act II is called "Electric Blues," and I lead the company out onstage and I say a few things to the audience to get started. So I said to her—I kind of thought it was obnoxious for her to be taking pictures—"Do you want to take any more pictures? Because, if so, now would be a great time." And she said, "I'm sorry," and she felt really bad. But then her husband next to her looks at me and says, "Hey, can you put us on the list to come back stage after the show?" My mind was so blown! No! I took a beat because I didn't understand it at first, just the audacity of it, and I go, "No! Definitely not." I think I felt kind of bad for giving the woman a hard time because she seemed genuinely sorry, but then her husband! It was just obnoxious. Then he took a nap for most of the second act, which to me, that's fine. If you want to nap through the play, nap through the play, but take a seat where you're not napping in the second row. And don't nap at "Hair," come on!
We haven't really freaked out anybody too much and they haven't freaked us out too much. Sometimes Will Swenson will shake his butt in people's faces, and I would say more often that not, they'll spank him, which is fine. That's cool and he loves it. It makes for a great moment. As soon as the audience realizes what the next two-and-a-half hours are going to be like, they're either on board or not. If they're not, we can tell right away from their body language that they're not going to be as fun to play with and so we won't.
Can you talk for a second about the cancellation of the October 11th performance? We actually don't know a ton about it. They say it's a cancellation, which it is, but we've added another show to make up for it. We've added a show the Monday before the 5th. My understanding is that Gavin Creel, who plays Claude, spoke with Cleve Jones and the other organizers of the National Equality March. Gavin started a group with a couple of his friends called Broadway Impact, which organized the Broadway community to fight for marriage causes. That's become something that our whole cast has gotten behind, and we've done a couple of rallies and we've appeared at a few events for this cause. Gavin and the organizers of the event got together and ultimately thought this would be a cool thing for Hair.
Our producers are so supportive of our activism out in the world because it's a great extension of the message that we're sending out on stage. It works really well and has inspired a lot of us to go out in the world and spread this message. So, we're not doing the show that day and we're going to get on a bus and go to Washington D.C. and we're going to be featured in some way as part of this March for Marriage cause. We don't really know what we're going to do—I don't know if we're singing or chanting. When they announced it to us, it was lumped into extended details about our trip to L.A. to be on The Tonight Show, so we don't have a ton of details. I think it should be incredible, though. Gavin said we're expecting a couple of hundred thousand people to be there, which should be really wonderful. I was very enthused. I'm excited to go back with a purpose.