Talkin’ “Hair” in the 21st Century



-Up close, the guys who play the lead roles of Berger and Claude in the dynamic revival of “Hair,” now at the Kennedy Center through November 21, look very much like a couple of contemporary young men: relaxed, casually attractive, youthful males of the 21st Century. Mind you, their phone doesn’t go off and they’re not carrying a laptop, but they could pass.

But they’re a couple of something else’s too. Their names, look, and reason for being here identify them beyond doubt as members of the theater and performance tribe. Still, they’re also in another tribe: the large group of young actors, singers, dancers, performers who bring the emblematic musical of the hippie generation alive with such authenticity that you can’t miss getting a contact high.

Both have names that sound perfect for the theater, B movies, opera or a biker gang. And we’re talking about their real names: Steel Burkhardt, he of the thick, longish, deep black hair who plays the rowdy, can’t-tie-me-down leader of the “Hair” tribe, and Paris Remillard, who plays the sweet, doomed Claude.

21st century guys they are—guys who weren’t even born when “Hair” splashed onto Broadway and stages around the country, revolutionizing yet again the musical theater form and signaling the mainstream arrival of hippies, Aquarians, and the antiestablishment, disaffected, rock-and-rolling, dope-smoking, free-loving, biracial and multi-ethnic generation of young people.

Burkhardt and Remillard are members in good standing of the generation to whom the Internet, Facebook and texting are second nature.

“Sure, it’s very different, but I think most of us have gotten into the show and the characters,” Burkhardt, who was a serious music student at Baldwin Wallace in Ohio, said. “I think sometimes you get more affinity for how they lived than how we live. They had to connect to each other. They didn’t send e-mails, they didn’t hide, and they were out there.”

“You have to have a lot of sympathy for Claude,” Remillard said. “I don’t have any problem understanding him or the rest of the tribe. They lived in a different time, but they’re pretty real to me. And the music is pretty cool.”

Both of them auditioned to be a part of the show, started in the background, and moved on up, eventually garnering the main roles for the tour. “This is about family,” Burkhardt said. “We all share in it. On the road, that’s what we are: family. A big family.”

Both of them understand the dilemma and the urges of their characters. “This was Viet Nam,” Remillard said. “Guys were having to deal with getting drafted, going to Viet Nam, getting killed. They didn’t have a choice. We don’t have a draft today, so I don’t think a lot of guys our age or younger understand what’s involved in something like that.”

“My dad was a marine,” Remillard said. “He understands. And my parents really support me in this. My dad doesn’t necessarily have knee-jerk reactions to things. He said that if there were a draft and I had gotten drafted, he would have helped me get to Canada.”

The two are obvious friends and have an easy banter between each other. Listen to them talk about music, about the special feeling that exists with each and every performance. “I don’t think my folks were part of all that,” Burkhardt said. “But I think they’re sort of hippie wannabees.”

“Do I ever get bored?” Burkhardt says. “Are you kidding me? There’s no way. Every night is like a fresh start, new audience, and new atmosphere. And we get out there a lot, you know, we interact, and it’s pretty spontaneous. You never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. And then there’s the stuff at the end of the show when people can go on the stage and join in. I’m always surprised how many people do, and how exciting that is. I don’t know, it’s a celebration. And when I get face-to-face with people in the audience, it’s always different.”

Burkhardt is easily the charisma guy of the bunch with his energy, his looks, that bad boy rep of the character. You’d think he gets a lot of attention from fans. “Naw,” he says. “Not at the moment.”

Remillard laughs. “He gets a lot of attention,” he says

There is also the tradition of the show that cast members—some, most, sometimes all—get naked near the conclusion of the first act. “Nobody has to do it,” Remillard said.

“Yeah,” Burkhardt said, “but when we first joined the cast, it was at Lincoln Center and it was supposed to be a limited run, and finally I thought, what the hell, I may never get the chance to do it, so I did it and you know, it was kinda fun. It’s liberating.”

They’ve toured England, and new and local cast members joined the cast, and everybody’s betting when they get naked. And they proceeded to talk about Irish and Scottish male and female performers in a sweetly crass way.

Remillard doesn’t have long hair—he looks a distance from being a hippie—but he has an affinity for Claude and the tribe. “You know, it’s not that far removed. We live differently. We don’t have that kind of personal contact that the people in the show do.”

There’s a bit on YouTube if you Google their names—it’s an informal rendition with audience by the two of them in street clothes, singing “Hair.” They jump, they dance, they run, they shake their HAIR! Like crazy people full of glee, goofin’ but stirring nonetheless.

Glee. There’s a thought. The music of Hair, starring two 21st century guys named Paris and Stone doing Claude and Berger.

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