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Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, knotted, polka-dotted

Diane Paulus’s Broadway hit ‘Hair’ comes to the Colonial

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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It was early morning when Diane Paulus walked into the Colonial Theatre for the first time, so eager to get a glimpse of the auditorium that she didn’t even pause to take off her long winter coat or black knit cap before striding down an aisle through the orchestra section, checking out the space. The stage was bare except for a ghost light, which was on.

“You’re catching me sort of in the moment,’’ she said, tilting her head up to scan the gilded balconies and extravagant late-Victorian ornamentation. She was silent for a few seconds, taking it all in, and then her verdict was unequivocal. “It’s gonna be perfect!’’ she said. “I’m so excited.’’

Perfect, that is, for Paulus’s touring production of “Hair,’’ the Broadway hit that begins a three-week run at the Colonial on Tuesday. With its center aisles and its opulence, she said, the theater is “just like the Hirschfeld, in New York,’’ which from March 2009 to last June was home to the Tony Award-winning musical revival and its tribe of hippies.

“The whole idea is that they take over the theater, so they’ll actually go in the balcony and they’ll be out in the boxes,’’ said Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, where she has become known for drama, much of it musical, that shatters the fourth wall. Thus her delight at the aisles, which the actors can use for mingling.

Such audience interaction is built into “Hair.’’ Composed by Galt MacDermot, it has a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and a song list that includes “Aquarius,’’ “Sodomy,’’ “Good Morning Starshine,’’ and “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sun Shine In).’’ Also, it has a famous nude scene — though that part isn’t interactive.

The power of the show “doesn’t really lie in the words of it,’’ producer Oskar Eustis opined by phone. The artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, he tapped Paulus to direct a 40th-anniversary concert version of “Hair’’ in Central Park in 2007, which became a full production in the park in 2008 and moved to Broadway the following year.

“The surface plot is so thin as to be almost nonexistent,’’ Eustis said. “You know, a bunch of hippies introduce themselves to us, sing and dance a lot, and then Berger drops out of high school, and then Claude gets his draft notice, and they talk about it a lot, and then Claude gets drafted and goes to Vietnam and gets killed.’’

As he sees it, the musical’s potency is in its underlying story: “the tribe’s attempt to save one of their own, and their failure to do so.’’

“ ‘Hair’ is about youth culture loving their country so much,’’ Paulus said, “that they’re not afraid to stand up for what they believe in and what they believe their country should stand for.’’

The musical premiered at the Public in autumn 1967, the first show to be produced there. Its next stop was the Cheetah, a nightclub in Midtown. Arriving on Broadway in the spring of 1968, it was “positively panting with love and smelling of sweat and flowers,’’ New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote in his review, meaning that in the nicest possible way.

Paulus grew up in New York, but she missed those productions, being a toddler at the time. By age 8 or 9, though, she had a copy of the cast album and was smitten with it. She remembers listening to “Hair’’ with her best friend, Katharine Weymouth, now the publisher of The Washington Post, who had the record at home, too.

“The two of us were singing ‘Sodomy’ at the top of our lungs,’’ Paulus said, amused. “I don’t think we had any idea what we were singing.’’

A few years later, when Milos Forman’s 1979 film adaptation came out, Paulus went with her older brother. But when the Public Theater asked her, in 2007, if she’d like to direct the concert version of “Hair,’’ she had never seen a stage production of the show.

“When they called me, I like dropped the telephone,’’ Paulus said. “They were like, ‘Would you be interested?’ I was like, ‘You have no idea. I’m obsessed with that show. I know all the songs by heart.’ And then I was like, ‘Can you send me a script?’ ‘Cause I didn’t know the show. I knew the music.’’

With the Boston opening of “Hair,’’ Paulus will have four simultaneous local productions, all steeped in music. The other three are ART shows: the world-premiere rock musical “Prometheus Bound’’ at Oberon in Cambridge; “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,’’ playing around the corner from the Colonial at the Cutler Majestic Theatre; and her long-running “Donkey Show,’’ also at Oberon.

So it might be easy to forget that Paulus, with a long résumé in experimental theater and opera, was once less a creature of musical theater than she is now. Still, hers was a name Eustis had heard on a number of lips when he moved to New York in 2004 from Providence, where he’d been the artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company. He recognized in her “a kindred spirit,’’ he said, and they collaborated on a couple of small projects.

“Diane is somebody who is a genuinely experimental director who is passionate about her populism, and that’s a very tough combination and a very rare combination,’’ he said. “When I was trying to think about the right person to bring a fresh and contemporary perspective to ‘Hair’ without in any way aestheticizing it or turning it into an art piece, I thought of Diane.’’

Rado and MacDermot, the show’s surviving creators (Ragni died of cancer in 1991), were initially less sanguine.

“Jim and Galt were rather dubious when I first described her to them. But after a couple hours of meeting with her, they were completely convinced,’’ Eustis said, explaining that their skepticism about Paulus had stemmed from their unfamiliarity with her.

There was also their understandable assumption “that what you’d want for the big revival of ‘Hair’ that they had in mind was a sort of A-list, well-known director who could help move it to Broadway,’’ he said. “Not having heard of her, that’s a big deal. ‘Hair’ is their life.’’

Paulus ended up working closely with both Rado and MacDermot. With Rado, she edited the book, sometimes restoring lines that had been dropped from one incarnation to another.

“What I found when I started working on ‘Hair’ was there were many versions,’’ she said. “I often joke, it was like the many folios of ‘Hair.’ ’’

They also added some explanatory lines that would not have been necessary in the ’60s, when everyone knew what a draft card was and what the consequences of burning it would be.

Paulus did, of course, help to shepherd “Hair’’ back to Broadway. The show, there for the fourth time, was her Broadway debut. It was also a financial success, recouping its capitalization. (Her London production, last year, was well reviewed but ran only five months and lost money.)

The political moment that this revival came into being — the summer of 2007 — was, for Eustis, part of the point. “We were mired in an increasingly unpopular and unwinnable war in Iraq, and with a president who had lost all moral authority, and the parallels to the Vietnam era were becoming extremely poignant,’’ he said.

To Paulus, “the show synched up with the zeitgeist’’ even more the following summer, deep in the presidential campaign. The night Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, she said, the audience cheered and screamed at the line, “I’m the president of the United States of Love.’’ A couple of weeks later, Hillary Clinton’s presence in the audience resulted in show-stopping applause, she added, and the night Sarah Palin made her Republican National Convention speech, people wept after the performance.

Some of the actors in the touring cast (which includes a pair of Boxford natives, Matt DeAngelis and Caren Lyn Tacket) were part of that “Hair’’ cast in the park; others performed in the show on Broadway, or in London’s West End, or all of the above. Consequently, Paulus calls this her “best-of cast.’’

She also says the tour is the moment she’s been waiting for: their chance to reach audiences in red states and blue with “a show about our American history and culture and what it means to be an American.’’

“The idea that the hippies are taking to America to me is like the culmination of ‘Hair,’ ’’ she said. “Because our country is so divided. I mean, that’s the problem with America.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

HAIR Presented by Broadway Across America-Boston

At: Colonial Theatre, Tuesday through April 10. Tickets: $48-$91. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacrossamerica.com/boston