New Bedford Festival Theatre is ready to ‘rock the house’

By GEORGE AUSTIN

Armand Marchand remembers when the government was trying to draft him for the Vietnam conflict back in the 1960s. He was about 25 years old and working as an English and drama teacher in the New Bedford Public Schools. At the time, teachers were exempted from the draft. It was around the year 1968 when civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy had been shot. People in the U.S. were conflicted about what was going on.

“It was a very turbulent time,” Marchand said. “It was very difficult for a young person, like myself, to assess what was going on. There was so much going on.”

But along came a show that addressed some of the issues of the day and did so in a different way that young people could relate to. “Hair” was the first rock musical. Mr.Marchand went to see the original production and said he found it to be “extremely energizing and deeply moving.” He said he felt a personal connection to “Hair” that he still does today.

The only places where “Hair” will be performed this summer is on Broadway and at the Zeiteiron Theatre in New Bedford, Mass., where it is being produced by the New Bedford Festival Theatre that Mr. Marchand founded. The show will run from July 8 to July 17 at the Zeiterion Theatre. Mr. Marchand said “Hair” has never been performed in Bristol County or on the Southcoast, so many people in the area may not have seen it. They may not have seen the show, but he said they will recognize songs, like “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Easy to be Hard” and the title song.

“Hair” tells the story of the “tribe”, a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. Claude, his good friend Berger, their roommate Sheila and their friends struggle to balance their young lives, loves and the sexual revolution with their rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society. Ultimately, Claude must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done, or to succumb to the pressures of his parents (and conservative America) to serve in Vietnam, compromising his pacifistic principles and risking his life.

The show, a product of the hippie counter culture and sexual revolution of the 1960s, was controversial with its depiction of the use of illegal drugs, profanities and nude scene as its songs became anthems for the peace movement of that time.

“This is an opportunity to see a landmark musical,” Marchand said.

When Marchand hears the song “Aquarius,” he thinks of the dawning of an age and a pivotal point in contemporary history. He says the theater reflects what is going on at the time. He remembers the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and said that pushed the American landscape in a different direction. When “Hair,” was made, he said it was a time of political upheaval. He notes the wars in the Middle East and said people still wonder if the wars will ever end.

“I think it’s extremely relevant to today,” Marchand said. “This was to the Vietnam era probably a very significant musical. It was anti-Vietnam war, but it was vastly entertaining.”

While “Hair” may have been made because of issues that people were dealing with back in the 1960s, Marchand said the show is appropriate for people ages 18 to 80. Marchand said the energy that comes from both movement and voices in the show is a trademark of “Hair.”

Auditions for “Hair” were done in New Bedford, Boston and New York. Members of the cast come from as far away as Olympia, Washington, with others from the Midwest, New York and a strong contingent from the Boston and Providence, R.I. areas.

“The show expresses to me the ideas of youth,” Marchand said. “It’s very youth oriented and just by sheer coincidence, nobody in this cast is over the age of 30.”

Marchand said rock works well with a musical. He said shows that are chosen for the New Bedford Festival Theatre have to have excellent music. The Theatre has produced “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” with music from the 1950s, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which features rock music and the soft rock of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Alex Tirrell, who has done a lot of rock musicals in the past, will be the music director for “Hair.” Marchand said the show will get people to tap their toes and they will want to jump up and dance. Michael Susko will be director/choreographer for the show.

“We’re telling everybody we’re going to rock the house here in New Bedford,” Marchand said as he sat in his office. Marchand said the audience will be invited up on stage at the end of the show for the performance of “Let the Sun Shine In” which he says will leave people uplifted.

“Hair” was recently revived for Broadway and Marchand said he does not know of any changes made to the show for that revival. He said there was extremely high interest in the show when it came back to Broadway and it won a Tony Award for best musical revival. He said the revival did such good business, that it is being brought back to Broadway against this summer.

“Which tells you that ‘Hair’ has stood the test of time,” Marchand said.

This summer, the New Bedford Festival Theatre is also producing another landmark show in “A Chorus Line” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1975.

“A Chorus Line today is cited as being the best Broadway musical ever,” Marchand said.

Marchand said the show, which features the songs “What I Did for Love,” “One Singular Sensation” and “At the Ballet,” appeals to a lot of women who have taken ballet lessons, but also expresses what young performers go through as they audition for parts in shows.

While not everyone goes to such a Broadway audition, Marchand said the show has a universal message because everyone has to prove themselves at one time or another to advance their lives. He said the show deals with human hopes and ideals and is usually dedicated to everyone who has to stand in line.

“It’s a musical about unvarnished optimism and enthusiasm,” Marchand said. “They saw in it a story that goes beyond what it’s about.”

The New Bedford Festival Theatre, which won the 2008 best professional production in the six states in the region from the New England Theatre Conference, is entering its 22nd season, but has never produced “A Chorus Line.” Marchand said the mission of the Theatre is to preserve the legacy of the American music theater which is a relatively new art form at about 150 years old. The New Bedford Festival Theatre attempts to take significant musicals from Broadway so that people can see them again.

The Theatre’s slogan is “bringing the best of Broadway to Southern New England.”

Hair
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