Asolo Rep in Sarasota lets the sunshine in with fresh take on classic musical ‘Hair’

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Jonathan Fleites as Woof in the Asolo Repertory Theatre production of “Hair.”

When “Hair” opened on Broadway in 1968, it was a watershed, once-in-a-lifetime, barrier-breaking musical, the “Oklahoma!,” “Rent” and “Hamilton” of its time.

The “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” created by actors and writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado and composer Galt MacDermot brought contemporary rock ‘n’ roll music to Broadway, introduced the staid and traditional audience to hippies, anti-war protesters and nudity. 

For some of a certain generation, it was a transformational experience.

“I don’t know that I would have gone into the theater without ‘Hair,’” said Michael Donald Edwards, the producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre where a new production of the now-classic musical begins Thursday. “I found my tribe. I was 19. I think a lot of people in my generation felt that about this piece. We were current and cool and recognizing the concerns of the time.”

Arts Newsletter:Sign up to receive the latest news on things to do, restaurants and more every Friday

On stage:Asolo Repertory Theatre sets full return to Sarasota theater season

Tony-nominated scenic design Anna Louizos stands in front of a flag she created out of a variety of materials for the Asolo Repertory Theatre production of “Hair.”

Anna Louizos, the three-time Tony-nominated scenic designer, didn’t get to see the show when she was a child growing up in California, but she was captivated by the cast recording.

“I remember it so vividly. The music was so unique and exciting to hear, especially knowing it was on a Broadway stage and such a new and fresh piece of work,” said Louizos, whose Broadway credits include “In the Heights,” “Cinderella” and “Avenue Q.” “It spoke to a different generation of people. It was exciting that a genre that could have something like ‘Oklahoma!’ could also have something like ‘Hair.’ It just spoke to me as a kid.”

So when director and choreographer Josh Rhodes called her about designing the Asolo Rep production, “I jumped at the chance.”

Rhodes, who has staged recent Asolo Rep productions of “The Sound of Music,” “Evita” and “Guys and Dolls” among others, said this new staging of “Hair” was all Edwards’ idea.

“I didn’t even know ‘Hair.’ Of course, you can’t live on this planet Earth without knowing some of the songs and what it’s about, but I had to start from square one, investigate it and what I wanted to do with it and even what it is,” he said. 

Safety in the theater:Sarasota arts venues juggle safety protocols and mask concerns as they open seasons

Longevity in the arts:How long have Sarasota arts leaders held their jobs?

Josh Rhodes, who has staged “Evita,” “Guys and Dolls,“ “The Sound of Music” and other shows for Asolo Repertory Theatre, is director and choreographer of the ground-breaking musical “Hair.”

Shocking in its time

It has been 53 years since “Hair” opened on Broadway, long enough for the once-shocking and rebellious musical to seem softer and more nostalgic.

“Hair” introduced Broadway to songs like “Hashish,” which lists a number of different drugs, and “Sodomy,” which lists a variety of sex acts. (The Asolo Rep production is recommended for ages 16 and older because of mature themes, language and the possibility of brief nudity.) 

It also spawned the hits “Good Morning Starshine,” “The Age of Aquarius” and the title song, along with the now-familiar “Frank Mills,” “Be-In (Hare Krishna)” and “I Believe in Love.”

The musical is about a “tribe” (or in this version, a pack) of politically charged hippies who are fighting the Vietnam War while gathering to share drugs and sex and rebel against their more uptight and conservative parents.

The group is led by Claude and includes his friends, Berger, Sheila, Hud and Woof, along with many more who gather with them. But how do you present them today in a way that makes these characters relevant?

A scene from the 2011 Broadway revival of “Hair” directed by Diane Paulus.

For a 90-minute version of the musical (staged to avoid intermissions and limit audience mingling in the lobby during the pandemic), Rhodes talked to a lot of people with passionate views of the show to figure out how to approach it with new eyes today.

“Most of the people I talked to were artists who said it taught them the potential for their creative lives in the industry,” Rhodes said. He wanted to get away from the idea of hippies being portrayed as “lazy, dumb, bubble-headed people saying peace, love man. I don’t think of artists who want to change the world as lazy.”

Artists changing the world

In his version, those hippies are artists – playwrights, painters, sculptors – trying to change the world and how we see it. “It’s activism in its own way,” Rhodes said.

Louivos latched on to that creative spirit to design a set that speaks to a “group of artists who found a common purpose and a safe place where they could be creative and see a more beautiful world that they wanted to at least create in the space they found.”

“Josh saw them as people creating things,” she said. “It gives them actions, things to build, things to paint, things to weave and that launched me into a whole exploration of how we could manifest those things on stage, using what they would find in an empty theater, scaffolding, paint, wood. They would go in the streets and bring things in, pieces that other people threw out that they could recycle and use in different ways.”

Edwards said he was surprised at how much the young performers who make up the cast love the music. “This score has been like water in the desert for them. They love the music and the melodies,”’ he said.

That’s surprising, Edwards added, because while “Hair” made “a promise that Broadway would produce a new sound,” Broadway continued to stick to traditional sounds for nearly three decades before “Rent,” “Spring Awakening,” “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” meshed theater with contemporary sounds.

Damon Gillespie, who has been seen in the television series “Rise” and “Tiny Pretty Things,” plays Claude in Asolo Rep’s production of “Hair.”

‘Rock ‘n’ roll is timeless’

Damon Gillespie, a theater and television veteran, said he has known the show for a long time and did a production about 10 years ago.

“I think the music is where most people connected with this first,” he said. “My grandmother and grandfather both know this music. Rock ‘n’ roll has been around for years. It’s constantly influenced music and musicals and that to me makes it timeless. Rock ‘n’ roll is timeless.”

Gillespie, who has performed on Broadway in “Aladdin,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Newsies,” may be more familiar from his roles in the short-lived NBC series “Rise,” about a group of high school theater performers, and the Netflix series “Tiny Pretty Things,” set at a Chicago ballet school.

When he first started thinking about producing the piece, Edwards said he was “responding to the feeling of joy in the piece. I wanted to do something uplifting. I wanted to let the sunshine in. That was my motivation.”

But the pandemic and the focus on protests calling for more diversity and equity in society (and the theater world), made the show seem more current than it might have even two years ago.

“Its concerns, its issues, the political urgency of the draft and being sent to Vietnam is the motivating through line,” he said. “While we no longer have the draft, we have the division that the draft caused still with us. There’s the division of class and race. It’s urgent and contemporary in a way I wasn’t expecting.”

Ishita Mili, a Bengali American director and choreographer, is assistant choreographer for Asolo Rep’s “Hair,” which marks her first theater venture.

Bringing diversity

Asolo Rep is working to more broadly diversify both in terms of the shows it produces and the people behind the scenes working on them.

For an assistant choreographer, Rhodes hired Ishita Mili, a Bengali American director and choreographer – or mover as she describes herself – with no background in theater.

“I think I was brought in to be a fresh set of eyes, knowing my cultural background as a mover and an artist,” Mili said. “When Josh said it’s set in the Vietnam War I asked him are you sure I’m the right person. It’s not really about what happened in 1968, but what ideas started in 1968 that influence now. Once you dive into the history you see connections of political movements starting to be made, a lot of things they were fighting for then, we’re still fighting for now. That’s why it’s still relevant and what we’re trying to bring to it, the relevance to now.”


Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermott. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Presented by Asolo Repertory Theatre, Nov. 18-Jan. 1, Mertz Theatre, FSU Center for the Performing Arts, Mertz Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Theater is following #SafeArtsSarasota protocols. Tickets start at $33. For more information: 941-351-8000; asolorep.org

Follow Jay Handelman on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Contact him at jay.handelman@heraldtribune.comAnd please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.