Students at Berkeley High will “Let the Sunshine In” by performing a 40th anniversary celebration—and critical examination—of the musical Hair, this weekend and next on campus at the Florence Schwimley Theater.
Director Maya Gurantz, founder of the East Bay theater troupe Ten Red Hen, which just finished their run of Clown Bible at the Willard School Metalshop Theater, called the production “a full collaboration with the students; they own the piece. They’ve been so creative.”
“I was interested in a way for the cast to look at the legacy of hippies at Berkeley High and in their lives,” Gurantz said. “Hair itself wasn’t written by hippies, but by a couple of out-of-work New York actors. There’s a famous letter by Hal Prince to them saying there’s nothing experimental at all about the play. The music is ‘50s music, not ‘60s. It’s not genuine to the period, yet its legacy is that people are moved by it. It’s still provocative. It’s full of contradictions and we use it as a way to look at the contradictions of the legacy of the ‘60s.”
The cast did their own research on the background, interviewing parents, teachers and others about the times the musical claims to exemplify
“It was an opportunity to ask their parents and themselves what it was all about,” said Gurantz. “There’s something self-selective about doing this here, now ... so many of the parents came to the Bay Area from elsewhere looking for something. That already changes the tenor of who their kids are. One parent’s a wonderful photographer and has put together a display of pictures of parents then [in the ‘60s] until now, which will go up in the lobby with an exhibit of our research notes.”
The play opens with a stage jammed “with so much stuff that it’s like a storage space. The cast enters as themselves, present-day Berkeley High students. There’s hardly any room for them! But they excavate and clear away all the clutter.”
One number, “Going Down,” about getting expelled from school, which traditionally features actors as administrators with Hitler mustaches, proves a wry moment.
“It makes no sense to Berkeley High kids,” said Gurantz. “And the real, present-day administrators watch the scene and say, ‘We’re so proud of our students challenging authority!’”
Pianist and composer Dave Molloy, a colleague of Gurantz from Ten Red Hen, supervised the music, and according to Gurantz, the tone is definitely post-’60s: “An uptight girl comes out and sings ‘Aquarius,’ as if it’s the Pledge of Allegiance, and all the others react, ‘O God, not that song again!’ ”
“There have been multiple productions every year for the past 40 years of Hair,” Gurantz said. “It’s usually presented as a nostalgia fest, nostalgia for something that maybe never was. An expression of yearning—I think the title song’s a sad song. Nostalgia for the ‘60s is often expressed as some idea of authenticity before everything became a commodity. But Hair was a commodity before it opened. It’s bizarre to do Hair in Berkeley, more than anywhere else. The strangest thing. But it’s the thing to do.”
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday through May 12. $7-$15. Florence Schwimley Theater, Berkeley High School campus.