HAIR, The Rock Musical: A French Twist

05/22/2009 12:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

With the triumphant reappearance of the love-rock musical HAIR on Broadway - (after last summer's revival in Central Park) - I'm adding my own "French Twist" on the production - and a production past - in Paris!

Sometime in the summer of 1970, I left the Cite Universitaire and wandered into the theater district of Paris. I found myself standing before a small sign reading "L'Auditions" posted on the stage door of the Theatre Port St. Martin on Blvd. St. Denis. Feeling bold in my tie-dyed bell bottoms and beaded headband, with my precarious new identity as a writer (I'd just received my master's degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis from San Francisco State) I pushed open the stage door. I was twenty-four years old, with a lot of long blonde hair.

Just inside the door, a tall mime-like figure stepped out of the darkness and handed me a card with the number 19 on it. I took the card and entered the dim interior of the theater. Before me, on-stage, a young woman in knee-high fringed suede boots and a mini-skirt sang "My Body is Walking in Space" into a standing mike, with no accompaniment. When a disembodied voice from the front rows thanked her and dismissed her, a number was called and another long-haired hopeful trotted up to the mike and belted out "Black Boys". It had become obvious that I'd managed, by chance, to join a queue of auditioners for a part in the Paris production of HAIR, which had opened some months earlier. When I heard #19 called out, I took my place on-stage. I knew every single song from HAIR, I'd seen the L.A. production and I was passionately supportive of the "politics" of the musical. I had a good singing voice and since I'd had little time to get nervous - I found it easy to be brave - and to launch into "Easy to Be Hard". When I finished, I was asked to sing another song and I obliged with my version of the amazing "Frank Mills".

When I received a "call back" the next day (by blue pneu) at my Cite dorm - I returned to the theater and, a day or so later, I was in the Paris cast of HAIR.

What had been, up till this moment, a kind of fairy-tale pinch-yourself experience, now became serious. It did not take long for me to figure out that I had been chosen as a "tribe-member" because I looked so American. I could sing all of the lyrics with feeling, but I had absolutely no talent as an actor or dancer and my French, which served me well ordering meals and on the Metro - was not (as it turned out) up to the complicated stage directions or quick-changes of the exhausting rehearsals. (The seemingly-anarchic dance numbers of HAIR were, of course, tightly-choreographed and I always seemed to stand up when I was supposed to sit down in rehearsal. I quickly found my place at the back of the stage and tried to stay there. I was a poet, after all. Poets don't know how to dance!)

HAIR was a popular export - but it was hard to determine how it was actually working. Some of the translations and pronunciations seemed a bit random - "Let the Sunshine In" became "Bonjour Toi La Lune" and "LBJ" was pronounced "El-Bee-Gee". What I considered to be the "spirit" of HAIR was embodied for me by the dramatic draft-card burning scene, which was also a challenge to "translate". That scene sat at the fiery center of HAIR's portrayal of youthful rejection of authority of "adults" and the State over the lives (and deaths) of the young - but it did not "play" as it had in the U.S. What seemed to evoke more audience reaction was Claude's dramatic imagining of the butchery of war, a re-enactment of violence against the Vietnamese people - which seemed to awaken a kind of collective memory of French colonialism in Vietnam - and its own ill-fated attempt to win a guerrilla war.

The French cast was proudly French - (except for Berger, the talented African-American actor, Bill Coombs, who spoke his lines only in English). They were tough professionals. They were curious about American idioms, but much of the dialogue had been changed to French slang, so there were few questions about cultural references. Plus, Pompidou was now president of the French Republic, De Gaulle had stepped down just a year or two before. The powerful political fallout of the 1968 "manifestations" or student-worker protests had not extended to the arts, in particular to the French theater. HAIR, despite its subject matter, was about business-as-usual...

Oddly, the Salvation Army in Paris was a kind of uni-voice protest group - a very outspoken conservative band of red-faced older men, shouting into bullhorns in the theater lobby - arguments about sexual freedom led to shouting matches before the show and at intermission. I thought that the theater management should throw them out, but they did not. And although one could readily purchase hashish patties and joints at cafes on the boulevard, the theater management made it clear that any cast member caught smoking anything suspicious backstage or in dressing-rooms would be fired from the show.

I have a dark memory that scares me even now: I am climbing slowly down the scaffolding on the inner walls of the theater - as the opening number, "Aquarius" swells on-stage - I carefully "feel" with one foot, then the other as I slowly descend toward the lit stage. I could have fallen, I could have slipped! Poets can't climb! Not long after, I remember trying to describe the American anti-war movement to my fellow cast members backstage just before intermission - I became impassioned, my barely-OK French suddenly blossomed: I was eloquent in another language! I spoke of the true meaning of HAIR, about the sexual and political revolutions - my "tribe" nodded and took my hands. Then we all rallied for the final scene before the break - the famous nude scene. I'd never taken my clothes off for this climactic moment before - now I felt the time was right. I had "laid bare" the essence of HAIR, I thought - this was a breakthrough. I stood with my fellow cast members, shivering a little in the garish lights, naked. Then the great velvet curtains closed and I turned to pick up my bell bottoms and "pull-over-aire". They had vanished. The French cast had hidden my clothes.