When Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968, America was a country at war with itself.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy would die within weeks. College campuses rocked with anti-Vietnam War protests. Police and demonstrators engaged in bloody conflict during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. LBJ became a lame duck president; Richard Nixon un-retired from politics and won the White House.

Then came Hair, a story ripped from the headlines before anybody ever said “ripped from the headlines.” No one had seen anything like this loud and proud musical that began as a free concert and found its feet in, of all places, the hub of commercial theater. Hair was a happening, a rapturous celebration of love, peace, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

The radio throbbed with its songs “Aquarius,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Good Morning Starshine” and “Let the Sun Shine In,” giving hit records to pop-rock-soul artists as diverse as Oliver, Nina Simone, Three Dog Night and the Fifth Dimension. Hair didn’t have a cast, it had a “Tribe.” It was nothing like its Broadway neighbors — Zorba; Promises, Promises; or 1776, a musical about a whole different breed of patriot.

When Hair returned to Broadway two springs ago, some 40 years had rocketed by. Barack Obama occupied the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue, Americans were reeling in a recession, and the country was again at war.

“It’s a good thing for us that the show is still so resonant,” says Steel Burkhardt, who plays Berger, one of two characters that hold the Tribe’s center. “There are still unpopular wars, and people still have hope for the human race to live in peace.”

Hair, the self-described “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” follows a group of young people who advocate pacifism and free love in a 1960s society seen as intolerant and brutal. Berger is the ultimate free bird; his buddy Claude is torn between loyalty to the Tribe and his parents’ expectations.

In the Broadway original, lyric and book writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado did double duty as actors, playing Berger and Claude, respectively. They essentially put their own lives onstage.

This time, the script was pulled from several versions written by Ragni, who died in 1991, and Rado, who’d been noodling around with various incarnations for decades. Rado also wrote new lines.

Burkhardt — “Steel” is his real name — caught the Hair bus in 2007, soon after graduating from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. He was hired for a three-day Hair concert that took place in Central Park that fall. When the Tribe moved uptown to Broadway, Burkhardt did, too, playing smaller roles and understudying the character of Berger. When Tony Award nominee Will Swenson moved on, Burkhardt moved up. Hair is his one and only professional credit.

What’s so important for these Tribe mates, he says, is that they make the show a living, breathing, topical work — not a history lesson. For that he credits Rado, who communed with the new generation of actors, giving them a sense of what life in the ’60s was really like.

“He lived Hair,” Burkholdt says of his mentor. “It’s from his experience. Despite what you can look up and read and see, he was there … firsthand.”

Not that the musical, despite its material, is all serious business.

“It’s just a fun show: the energy, the music,” Burkhardt says. “We break that fourth wall and involve the audience. We want an audience that’s going to be interacting with us, still being voyeurs, of course, but that wants to play when it’s time.” (So, when you’re invited onstage to dance, don’t be shy.)

The popularity of this approach is underscored by the fact that the national tour will transfer to Broadway from July 5 through Sept. 10, with the original revival Tribe in place, before hitting the road again.

And how does the Tribe want audiences to feel as they leave the theater?

“High,” says Burkhardt. “I want them to feel like they’re high. Like all the endorphins are released in your body. Whether it’s a hopeful high, and you’re thinking about paying it forward, and bringing good energy to other people, or it’s a quiet high and you are thinking about what we can do to move forward as a culture.”

And the show continues its forward momentum. After it completes its national tour, it will play a limited engagement on Broadway from July 5 through Sept. 10.

Hair shakes the stars at the Fox Theatre from May 17-22.


Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre. Visit www.synchrotheatre.com.