Getting Ready for a “Hair” Homecoming

Marshal Kennedy Carolan and Steel Burkhardt in Toronto promoting Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

If four years on the stage qualifies as an education, then Steel Burkhardt is about ready to graduate. But he’s not going anywhere if he can help it.

“I’m actually a little more like a super-senior, too, because I’m doing an ‘extra semester,’ ” he says with a laugh. Burkhardt made his Broadway debut four and a half years ago playing the role of Berger in the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.

That would make his fellow thespian, Marshal Kennedy Carolan, a sophomore. Carolan made his own Broadway debut with Hair when he joined the national tour as part of the Tribe last year, and now the show that has been called the definitive rock musical will be experiencing something of a homecoming when it returns to Toronto.

From December 13 to 31, 2011, Hair will play a limited engagement at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – the same theatre the show made its original Canadian debut at back in December of 1969. And as with every homecoming, there has to be a homecoming dance, but the good thing about Hair is that everybody, including the audience, gets to participate.

Cadence had a chance to sit down with Burkhardt, who plays the charismatic and irresistibly charming Berger, and Marshal Kennedy Carolan, whose role in the Tribe has allowed him to be a part of something bigger than he imagined.

“There are shows that actors come across that are written just for pure entertainment, and I feel like this show is of course entertaining,” Carolan says. “But it also is one of those special shows that you have the chance to impact so many people’s lives by performing in front of them every night. You know, like, they take with them what they want from it more than just a fun night at the theatre. There’s something more to this show that affects a lot of people, which is a really cool thing to be a part of.”

Hair follows a group of hopeful, free-spirited young people who advocate a lifestyle of pacifism, drug experimentation, and free love in a society riddled with brutality and intolerance during the Vietnam War. When Berger, the young, charismatic leader of the group, is drafted into the war, their peaceful lifestyle collides with society’s expectations of them. With themes of sexual identity, racism, and anti-war political demonstrations, the show remains as relevant today as when it premiered in 1967. In fact, with a decade-long war still ongoing in the Middle East, it may be seen as even more relevant today than ever.

“Well, I mean, it’s minus the draft, which is what is the basic idea of what really brought a lot more young Americans out to protest,” says Burkhardt. “But the idea is that we don’t know if it’s the end of this war. We’d like to think that it is going to be, but the ideas of terrorism could continue, you know? Like cells could open up and close every single day. That’s what the media tells us. But I think that does resonate from both eras, and that’s why people who come and see [Hair], they’re like, ‘It’s still just as potent today as it was back then!’ And it is.”

The show has spawned such well-known hits as “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Aquarius,” and of course, “Hair.” In addition, the show has taken the awards arena by storm.

In 2009, Hair won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, as well as the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical. The show was also nominated for seven more Tony Awards, including Best Direction (by director Diane Paulus), Best Choreography, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design. If that’s not enough, the cast recording was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

So how does it feel to be part of such a theatrical powerhouse?

“It’s a great show,” Burkhardt says. “I mean, it’s my first. We opened on Broadway – I made my Broadway debut with it, as well as Marshal just did in the summer – and I’m so happy and pleased to have been a part of it and been a part of such a production that, you know, was like the 40th anniversary of it when we originally did it in the park. And just how it grew from there, and how it’s affected me as well as it’s affected the people that have seen it. Just from the music, the show, the vibe, the feel, you know, just everything it encompasses. I mean, the idea that it’s so nostalgic, and yet kids who are sixteen and in college come and see it, and they’re just like, ‘God, I want to be in the show,’ or they want to live in that show.”

Carolan, whose long blonde hair makes him look every bit the California native he is, could well be one of those kids, from his level of excitement at being a part of Hair. Burkhardt shows his enthusiasm, but he also has the veteran’s cool, whereas Carolan’s face lights up when talking about performing the tour’s kickoff show in Washington DC.

“I loved performing at the Kennedy Centre in DC,” he says. “It was the first stop on the tour and it was just such a cool place to be able to open a show like Hair and perform in such an amazing city, political city, in America.”

Burkhardt has similar sentiments about performing in DC, recalling the days he spent riding past all the historical monuments in the city on his way to work at the theatre.

“I stayed with these two guys in a brownstone up on Capitol Hill, and I rode a bike every single day to the theatre in DC,” he says. “And I rode past all the monuments. I rode past the Capitol building every single day, the Congress building every single day, like at night and before the show. That was actually really cool, just to kind of ride a bike around that.”

When one speaks to both actors, one gets the sense that the passion, joy, and intensity with which they imbue their characters comes from a natural place. Carolan points out that Hair, as a politically-themed musical, defines how the relationship between art and politics is an important and long-standing one.

“I think art can influence a person’s mindset on a particular issue more so than a politician or a leader speaking to them.”

With Burkhardt, what comes out is an intelligent and well-informed perspective on the cultural and historical importance of a show like Hair.

“One thing we like to bring up is civil rights. There was a huge civil rights movement all throughout the ’60s, and the summer of ’67 is when our show is taking place, and that’s before the assassination of Martin Luther King, before the assassination of Robert Kennedy,” he says. “So there’s still a lot of intermixing of cultures. It was the first time that people were speaking out. And most people would say that it was the healthiest time period in America’s culture, the 60s, because all of those things, all those conversations, and all that dialogue was happening finally.”

He adds, “I think it’s one of the things why capitalism is great, because you can do that kind of stuff. Why democracy works – because as an artist at least, you’re not told what to do. Michelangelo and all of these artists that were incredible and worked with marble, they were just beautiful pieces of work, [but] you know, they were only allowed to do certain things. Not saying they weren’t extremely religious – maybe they believed, but maybe they didn’t. Maybe they only did that because that was the only way they were allowed to create art. And now we’re not told that we’re not allowed; we don’t have to do that. Now we can do what we want. I mean that’s why, like, Jim Rado, and Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot were able to say, ‘Let’s take a piece of American culture and just throw it up on stage.’ And probably in other societies they would never have been allowed to do that. And a lot of art gets conversation going, or conversation after something happens politically or even sometimes before.”

Politics aside, the other controversial aspect to Hair is the nudity involved in the show. For a musical that showcases the era in American culture where free love was the name of the game, it’s not completely unexpected to see a character or two take off their clothes. But what is it like to go bare in front of everyone each night for money?

“Um, it’s kind of . . . whoa, well, when you put it that way, God!” exclaims Carolan with a laugh.

“The first time you do it, it’s of course terrifying because not many people are ever naked in front of more than a thousand people watching. But it’s one of my favourite parts of the show now, and I don’t feel naked at all. It’s a freeing feeling. It’s actually really fun, and it’s done beautifully. It’s not sexual – or there’s nothing derogatory about it. It’s just the simple human body – naked.”

As for Burkhardt, he is no longer a stranger to public nudity. His bio states that he “was shy in a small concert, then got naked in Central Park, was nude on a Broadway stage, then bared it again on the West End.”

“And actually, I figured out – ‘cause you know I’ve been doing it four and a half years – I actually figured out that I’ve been naked in front of over half a million people,” Burkhardt says. “That’s going on my tombstone.”

“That’s awesome! That’s incredible,” Carolan says, looking at him and laughing.

When asked about their target audience and the re-emerging popularity of musical theatre, due in part to shows like Glee and their own Broadway revival of Hair, Burkhardt and Carolan are more than happy with the trend.

“I think it’s definitely a youthful show. And in New York, especially certain cities (L.A.), we had such a young audience,” says Carolan. “And I love that musical theatre is becoming popular again because it’s such a fun medium in society, and I think that this is absolutely, one hundred percent right up their alley.”

The themes of being your own individual and finding your own identity within a group are things that young people can relate to and often seek out from the theatre experience, according to Carolan.

“I think the popularity of it is good,” Burkhardt agrees. “Now if people would just get out of the comfort of their homes – instead of watching it on TV – and come and actually see a live theatre production, I think their minds would be blown, and they’d realize, oh, this is how it’s truly supposed to be viewed.”

Well, there are only two weeks available to take Burkhardt’s advice and do just that, as Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical tour will only be in Toronto from December 13 to December 31. So get your tickets and show info here, and go and catch the spirit of love, peace, and timeless optimism.