Talk about coming of age.
Oskar Eustis was a Minneapolis teenager backpacking through Europe in the early 1970s when he stumbled upon a London production of "Hair." The tribal rock musical by James Rado, Galt MacDermot and the late Gerome Ragni, full of frank statements about war, sex and drugs, helped his own dawning Age of Aquarius.
The show galvanized him, and set him on his career path. Eustis, a graduate of the former Central High School in Minneapolis, enrolled at a new theater program at New York University, where as a student he co-founded a company and auditioned for Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theatre, where "Hair" premiered in 1967. It was the first non-Shakespeare work that Papp produced at the Public, which became a hothouse of experimental theater and a Broadway feeder of pathbreaking shows.
Eustis would go on to important jobs in the field, including at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, where he was a dramaturg and then artistic director. He commissioned and directed the premieres of two parts of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." At the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, he served as associate artistic director from 1989 to 1994 before becoming artistic director of Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., where he spent 11 years ending in 2005.
That's when he closed a loop with an appointment to his dream, running the Public.
In 2008, 36 years after that London experience with "Hair," Eustis presided as producer over Diane Paulus' revival of "Hair." After opening at the Public, it transferred to Broadway and won the Tony Award for best revival of a musical. The Broadway tour of "Hair" opens Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.
We caught up with Eustis last week, and found his enthusiasm for the show undiminished.
Q What does "Hair" mean to you?
A I was hitchhiking through Europe at 14 when I wandered into a production in London, got up on stage and danced with the tribe. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me and cemented my lifelong connection with theater. So now it's come full circle. I turned 50 in July 2008, and the cast gave me a surprise birthday party. It was the happiest moment of my life, to be lifted up on their shoulders.
Q What accounts for the show's staying power?
A Two things, the first of which is self-evident. It's just an extraordinary score [with songs such as "Let the Sun Shine In" and "Aquarius"]. The music is something we all grew up with. And it was really the last time that a theater score created America's soundtrack.
The other point that this production restores is the full sense of the idealism. Sometimes, when people do this, it gets encrusted with '60s and '70s bits, a kind of retrospective mugging and winking. This captures the idealism of that time, 1967, that speaks very strongly to the present.
Q When I think of "Hair," I sometimes think of hippie spoofs and camp.
A You have to remember that when it opened on Broadway in '68, it was provoked by this sense of ongoing national tragedy. Dr. King was assassinated before opening. Bobby Kennedy would soon be killed. "Let the Sun Shine In" was not a happy song. It was a plea for hope and peace that came after the death of [the character] Claude. It was a plea from a group of young people who feel themselves surrounded by darkness and despair and death. That's something we can relate to today. The production is both retrospective and of today, with genuine, stereoscopic double vision.
Q The musical reflects the zeitgeist, even as you kept it in its period?
A It was always very important to us working on it that this was a show about '67. We weren't going to update it nor do any winking awareness of the present day. Yet, at the same time, we talked about the aspects of '67 which spoke to today. Bush was still president when we began the revival. There was a tremendous sense of needing change at the top. When Obama became president, the show felt more hopeful. But over the last year it's taken on a darker tone with a scary sense that our opportunities are slipping through our fingers.
Q "Hair" still polarizes people. Can you explain that?
A All of our culture wars since the '60s have been about fighting over the meaning of the '60s. For some of us, it's the high point of American idealism. We understood our role in the world and we formulated a different ideal than American empire. For others, it's a time of chaos, dissolution, loss of faith. The problem is defined as people not believing enough in authority.
Q And there's evidence for all points of view in "Hair"?
A Absolutely. It's really a cultural landmark that is very relevant and vital today.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390