Hair! makes Hair-raising Return with Fresh McGill, Concordia Talent

Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s Cast and Crew on the Promises, Challenges of Controversial Production

McGill performers in rehearsal. Courtesy Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society

From Feb. 2 to 4, the McGill Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society will be performing the stage play Hair!—a production about race, the Vietnam war draft, and how a group of hippies band together to protest against their parents' generation with their own sexual revolution and pacifism.

. It was originally written for the stage in the 1960s by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, along with original musical composer Galt MacDermot. 

In the 1960’s, Hair! broke many boundaries in the theatre scene. Controversial topics such as marginalisation, sexuality, interracial relationships, racism are spoken of, and it even includes a nude scene. Now in 2023, the McGill undergraduate theatre society–with participation by Concordia students–is putting on the first major production of Hair! in Montreal since 2016. Not only is this the first production in many years, but for many actors it’s their first performance ever on stage. 

Alex O’Neill, the play’s dramaturg, explained why this production was chosen out of many musicals that could have been done. “It’s a folk pro-people play,” he said. “Those who have been marginalised, those who have been oppressed, are at the centre of the production.” O’Neill added that he wanted people from all walks of life to relate and resonate with this production on a personal level.

Abi Sanie, the play’s director, emphasized the new energy infused into this rendition of the play. “The beauty of this production […] is the age group. Most of us are undergraduate students or recently graduated folks,” they said. “And I think the youth and the voice that that collective brings to this piece has been really, really special.”

The musical director Kirk Elsmore explained that this spirit of innovation is reflected in the play's score which has been altered from the original. “We’ve made our own revisions […] staying true to the text as much as possible. We have our own sound," he said.

“I always enjoy the finale songs either of Act One finale or show finale,” Elsmore added. “I’ve [judged] a lot of good musicals based on how those sound, and I think the musical has some great moments […] of really delivering the music.”

Both Elsmore and O’Neill explained that this production was a memorable one for all those involved. “We’ve been rehearsing since  pretty much November and I’ve been working exclusively with the vocals and Madison, our vocal director. And I just love it,” said Elsmore. “I love performing with the actors […] to hear them sing and develop their voices […] I’ve always been moved by that.” 

Many in the play’s cast expressed their enthusiasm for its at times unconventional script.

Cast member Mariam Wehbe said “Tourists come to the orgy,” was her favourite line of the play, adding it was “really fun to say on stage.”

According to O’Neill, the line that stuck with him the most was “As Mary Magdalene once said, Jesus I’m getting stoned.”

“It really captures the essence of the play […] because you’ve got old traditional values that are conflicting with those of the new generation,” O’Neill said. 

The cast and crew are very aware of the famous nude scene in the original stage production and spoke on how they were able to bypass this without sacrificing any of the scene’s intimacy.

“It’s a huge thing to do and a huge risk to take to put yourself out there on stage like that. And we felt we could take that moment in another direction [...] But folks are fully clothed,” said Sanie.

Due to this play containing sensitive subject matter, the director and other crew members expressed that the audience should note a couple of things before watching. 

“I would like to say if folks have a chance before coming […] read the land acknowledgement, the content warning and the accessibility information, that’s available on our social media. We’ve been talking a lot about community care […] and making sure everyone who is going to see art has resources to be comfortably uncomfortable.” 

Tickets for Hair! can be purchased here