Hart House Theatre is once again straying from the traditional formula of staging one musical, one Shakespearean play, one Canadian drama, and one classical drama, which has been seen at Hart House for many past seasons. Indeed, this season Shakespeare is absent, but not missed, replaced by Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.
Another exciting change: two musicals instead of one. The first, Heathers: The Musical, opened the 2018–2019 Hart House season. The second, Hair, premiered January 18 and is running until February 2. Hair is a relevant piece, set in 1968 but reaching through time to speak to modern audiences.
Performer Katie Miller and assistant choreographer Nathan Sartore are excited not just about the performance, but also about working with the team at Hart House Theatre, which they both describe as a “very safe” space. The fact that Hart House fosters this kind of atmosphere for its performers is evident to the audience through the quality of its shows, which are often inventive, immersive, and exciting adaptations of new and classic productions. Hair appears to be shaping up to be no different.
Originally from Calgary, Miller’s Hart House debut will be as Jeanie in Hair. Miller notes that she was “drawn to the energy of the show,” especially after she saw the 2009 Broadway revival. She describes the musical as being about “a group of hippies in Central Park just before the Vietnam War, their protests, and decision to burn their draft cards. It follows the story of Claude, who goes through the decision as to whether or not to stay with his tribe or go off to the war.” She goes on to explain that at its heart, the show focuses on the “pressure of social norms, parents,” and themes of “race, peace, [and] anti-war sentiment.” Miller notes that these themes continue to be “really important in this day and age,” making the musical a very “cool piece of theatre to bring to the public.”
Sartore also hails from the west coast — Vancouver — and is part of the Hart House production team for the first time with Hair. It is likely that many students on campus have never seen Hair before, and Sartore shares that he was in the same boat, having never seen the show before becoming involved. However, he was excited to discover “how relevant the show continues to be on its 50th anniversary. It’s a really special show.” As a young performer early in his career, Sartore praises Hart House for bringing in people like director and choreographer Julie Tomaino, also appearing in her Hart House debut. Sartore explains that it is “amazing for young professionals to work with this calibre of people.”
Indeed, the quality of the performers and production team often shines through in Hart House productions, but so does the subject matter. Hair was no doubt selected because of its continuing ability to resonate with contemporary audiences. Sartore notes that, for example, there is an emphasis on the individual in the choreography: “There are moments when 20 people are on stage and no one person is doing the same thing as someone else, which is really special to watch.” This is a stylistic choice meant to reflect the central theme of the musical: the continuing question of individuality that we all must face, especially when confronted with difficult topics such as racism and war.
Of course, hair itself can be political, and that is a concept that Miller and Sartore say was discussed early in the production of the show, during table work. Miller notes that the team discussed hair as being related to “freedom and rebellion,” especially as young men were required to shave their heads when conscripted during the Vietnam War. According to Miller and Sartore, the team particularly identified with the politicization of body hair in 2019. As Sartore explains, “Body hair is an issue we struggle with still. Maybe we’ve become more comfortable with hair on our heads, but there’s still a long way to go in these societal views on how body hair should be.” Miller echoes this response, saying that “there’s so much societal pressure on women to have shaved body hair. We were encouraged at the beginning [of the production] that body hair was great, which was awesome.”
Hair appears to be shaping up to be another intriguing Hart House Theatre production. Miller notes that the show is “very immersive,” with the fourth wall being broken all the time. The intended effect is to make the audience feel like it’s a part of the show, says Miller. How will audiences respond?
If the energy reflected by Miller and Sartore is any indication, likely very well. Half a century may sound like a long time, but it will be interesting to connect our current era to that of many of our parents’. And, if for nothing else, students should enjoy the opportunity to see a classic musical performed on stage with a large cast, all at student prices. The fact that it’ll likely be a unique and thought-provoking show is a special bonus not to be missed.
Hair opened at Hart House Theatre on January 18 and runs every Wednesday to Saturday until February 2.