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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Years after its debut, Hair retains its hold
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Hair is unknown territory for most students today.
Hair is unknown territory for most students today.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

Hair is one of those shows that blasted into America's pop culture and never really left.

After its 1968 Broadway debut, songs from the hit musical were covered by artists like the Fifth Dimension and Nina Simone. A film version followed in 1979. And now, 41 years after its debut, Hair is enjoying a Broadway revival, and UW-Madison's University Theatre is also donning its tie-dye.

For Steve Rothman, directing Hair for University Theatre is the realization of a long-held dream. As a teen, he saw the original production (although not with the first cast) in New York and was thrilled by the experience.

"I like to say that's when I made my Broadway debut," Rothman jokes about the show's finale, when the cast invites the audience onstage for a be-in. "I got down from the balcony to the stage in about 30 seconds, I was so excited!"

Yet Rothman hopes that audiences who remember Hair for classic songs like "Aquarius" and "Easy to Be Hard" - or for its nudity - will rediscover its compelling story and deeper meaning.

"People don't remember that there's a storyline about Claude and whether he's going to Vietnam or not," he says. "It was an antiwar play." Rothman intends to do justice to its serious side.

The director, who lives in Los Angeles and teaches theater at California State University-Los Angeles, is leading a cast of 26 UW-Madison undergrads. While Rothman remembers the hippie era firsthand (he cheerfully refers to himself as a "freak" and still sports shaggy hair and love beads), and Gen X-ers like me remember the show's music from our childhoods, Hair is unknown territory for most students today.

Says Rothman, "I've been directing professionally for 35 years, and this is the first time ever that I'm finding myself in a room explaining a show that is so much a part of the life I lived, and I'm explaining it to people who have no background other than history to understand what I'm talking about. Vietnam, the images you used to see every night on TV...it's stuff that is completely unknown to the cast."

The experience has led Rothman on a journey through his own young adulthood, with memories that are both joyful and painful. "The prop department had the Selective Service cards all of us had to have, and seeing them was like having a flashback [to a bad memory]," he says.

He remembers a high school friend who graduated in June 1968 and was killed almost exactly a year later in Vietnam. Today, his classmate's name is etched on the Wall in Washington, D.C.

Yet Rothman also recalls the era's idealism, and he believes it's making a resurgence. He sees parallels between the late '60s and early '70s and the situation the U.S. finds itself in now. "We're in tough times, fighting a couple of wars. There's a lot going on in the negative, but also a lot going on in the positive," he says, pointing to increased voting among youth and a new president.

Rothman hopes his peers will see the show and revisit their youth without Hair becoming an exercise in nostalgia. At the same time, he hopes younger audiences will discover a show that shattered boundaries decades ago yet still has relevance today.

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