Exclusive: A year-end musical about sexual activity and drug use

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Repertory Philippines' version of the Broadway musical “Hair” runs from Nov 17 to Dec. 17, 2017. The directors of the show discuss the structural openness of the production and why the musical remains as relevant as it was in Broadway. Photo courtesy of REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — According to Chris Millado, director of Repertory Philippines’ production of “Hair,” there’s no better choice for the big year-end musical.

Revolutionizing theater with its use of guerrilla storytelling and codification of the rock musical, “Hair” debuted on Broadway in 1967 and has continued to shock audiences while simultaneously tugging at their emotions. “It's a buffet of really very rich musical experiences,” Millado says. “It brings in a lot of very compelling historical situations, which, interestingly, resonate with the present.”

“Hair” revolves around a “tribe” of hippies in 1960s New York who rebel against the Vietnam War while discovering their liberties through sexual activity and drug use. The focus is on recent Oklahoma transplant Claude, who falls in love with free-spirited Sheila — and has already gotten his draft card in the mail.

This time, the production is trippy and powerful, transporting audiences back to the not-so-swingin’ ‘60s with a 10-piece live band, celebrity guest cameos, and a cast led by Markki Stroem, Topper Fabregas, George Schulze, and Caisa Borromeo. “Every time you see it, it’s going to be a different show,” says musical director Ejay Yatco, who shares that rehearsals end with the cast eating dinner together. “They need to shake [the show] off,” he adds. “It makes them think too much. So we eat first, and then we go home.”

Hair-2.jpg “['Hair'] brings in a lot of very compelling historical situations, which, interestingly, resonate with the present,” says Chris Millado (right), director of the Repertory Philippines' production of "Hair." Ejay Yatco (left), musical director of the production, also says: "Every time you see it, it's going to be a different show." Photo by JL JAVIER

“At the time,” Millado says, “men wearing their hair long and women wearing theirs uncombed and free was a statement. It was a choice, because it went totally against the image of the military.” And Rep’s “Hair,” he promises, will be an homage to their passion and conviction. “I think it’s an exciting journey [for the audience], and it might even be a pleasant surprise and a jolting one, to find out that the journey might be their own, too.”

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Millado and Yatco to discuss the structural openness of “Hair,” how their staging differs from that of Broadway, and why the musical remains as relevant as it was when it opened. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How does your show set itself apart from the Broadway production? Would you say you had a lot of room to get creative with the material?

Ejay Yatco: Absolutely. The thing about this is, it's been staged many times, and the script and the story leave much room for improvisation. For example, in my score, the overture is completely up to the musical director. There are no notes. So it's a material that's easily shaped and easily adaptable.

Chris Millado: The same thing with the script. It says, "You can either do or not do this scene." It gives strong signals that you can bring your own reality into the production. The spirit of the structure and the storytelling of this play came from what is now known as guerrilla theater, which is political street theater, very much based on improvisation. It went against structure, which was unlike other musicals at the time.

The cast enjoys it a lot because they can really improvise a lot [and], have fun with it. Unlike other musical theater pieces where you have very strict reins in terms of the scenes, this one is very rugged and malleable.

hair_musical.jpg Revolutionizing theater with its use of guerrilla storytelling and codification of the rock musical, “Hair” debuted on Broadway in 1967 and has continued to shock audiences while simultaneously tugging at their emotions. Photo courtesy of REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

Ejay Yatco: Even the score. Most of the time, it just says, "ad lib." [Laughs] Then you're free to do whatever you want.

How did you approach the musical direction?

Ejay Yatco: I wanted to merge the original cast recording [from 1968] and the one from 2009, because they both had their points. People were saying 2009 was a little too show-y, and the original had the right flavor, so I'm trying to mix both. But what I like about 2009 was the element of musical theater. The storytelling was very clear to the music, so I'm trying to do a hybrid.

Chris Millado: Like I said, there's a rugged quality to it [that looks] unkempt, but innocent, free, and beautiful. We're pushing for that kind of quality in the music and the staging.

What can we expect from the show, performance-wise?

Ejay Yatco: Some of [the cast] are veterans, some of them are new. But they have this amazing vocal chemistry. The thing about this cast is, they sound one, which is exactly what the piece needs because it's about a tribe, an ensemble. So I think it's very powerful. You will be impressed.

Chris Millado: At Rep, you have actors who've worked with each other [for some time], so you have a real ensemble, which is difficult to achieve if you have people coming from different groups. So that's always a very good beginning, especially for a piece like this which requires a lot of improvisation and feeling.

hair_musical_1.jpg In the Repertory Philippines' version of award-winning production "Hair," Markki Stroem (right) plays the role of Claude (a member of the hippie tribe) while Caisa Borromeo portrays Sheila (a feminist leader of the hippie tribe). Photos courtesy of REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

Even today, the show remains relevant as it traverses familiar ground — political strife, cultures and beliefs clashing, recreational drug use, sexual revolution. Given that it’s a musical, is there a conscious decision to simultaneously reflect modern disillusionment and the need for change and give people something to smile about?

Chris Millado: Yes, of course. To me as a director, my personal choice for pieces I decide to do and spend my creative time on are pieces that connect with the present. But as I said, the hippie movement was about love and peace and fun, so I think there's a lot to smile about.

How do you imagine “Hair” will resonate with Filipino audiences?

Chris Millado: The whole credo of the hippie generation was a celebration of love, harmony, peace, beauty, freedom. But of course, it didn't come out of the blue. It came out of a specific historical context, which was the Vietnam War, and the [Civil Rights Movement] in the United States, during the time young people were drafted and forced to join the war in Vietnam. If you were 18 eighteen years old and up, you were required to serve in the military. Any time at all, you could be hauled off and find yourself in the middle of warfare. So they rebelled against conservatism and all signs of authority, from the government to their parents. They went up against the lies that were being peddled to them by state-controlled media.

Audiences who might have had experienced the ‘60s might get a flashback of their time of rebellion, and it might also resonate with the millennials, who might see parallels between what's happening today in terms of the youth finding its voice and its power.

Ejay Yatco: The themes are very universal. Mostly it's about love, and I think everyone can relate to love. And history has a way of repeating itself. So I think with what's happening in the world today, what the world needs now is love.

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"Hair" runs until Dec. 17, 2017 at Onstage Theater, Greenbelt 1, Makati. For more information, visit the Repertory Philippines website.