When is a musical more than just a musical? Moshe Kepten certainly knows the answer to that one. The 43-year-old Kepten is at the helm of a new production of Hair, which will take place at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv on January 7.
Hair is one of the most enduring and iconic musicals ever to have graced the stages of Broadway and the West End, not to mention numerous locations around the globe, as well as Milos Forman’s delightful 1979 bigscreen rendition.
The musical was first performed in 1967, when the Western world was awash with free love, hippie vibes and revolutionary musical sounds but also gathering opposition in the United States to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
The stage production made it over to Israel in 1971. The show, which took place in Ramat Gan, caused a few raised eyebrows, not to mention outright scandal. In one scene, the members of the cast, which included a young Zvika Pik, stripped down to their birthday suits, causing uproar across the country, as well as in political circles, and left an indelible mark on the national psyche.
Kepten says that now, more than four decades on, the pall of “respectability” still hangs over the work.
“It’s ridiculous that what people always remember from Hair is the nudity. To my mind, the nudity is so insignificant in this show. It is simply not an issue,” he says.
Understood, but we’re talking about Israel of the early 1970s, which, post-Six Day War euphoria notwithstanding, was still a very conservative country. The director of the new production says that little has changed in the interim.
“Even now, at the beginning of 2015, what interests everyone is the nudity. I’m surprised by the degree of shallowness that we still have here, when a musical like Hair should really be galvanizing the spectators, and first and foremost, those who dictate public opinion on various levels, to think about the real message of this musical instead of focusing on whether they consider it acceptable for someone to get undressed on a stage,” he asserts.
So can we put the nudity issue to rest once and for all? Will the performers strip or not? “To tell you the truth, just one week before the show, I haven’t decided on that yet,” Kepten admits. “We are undergoing an intimate process of rehearsals, with 35 actors. We are checking this out and trying all kinds of things. We’ll see how we all feel about it and where we end up. I might even let the actors decide what they feel comfortable with.”
Kepten has his hands full, even without the will-they-won’t-theystrip issue. The logistics of overseeing the performance of such a large cast of actors, in addition to dancers and singers, and melding all that with live music provided by an eight-piece ensemble, is the stuff of any director’s most trying headaches.
The leading actors in the lineup are Oz Zehavi as Berger; Chen Amsallem as Sheila; Dan Shapira as Claude; Ido Rosenberg as Woof; and Merav Feldman as Jeannie.
“I think it is the largest cast for a musical there has ever been in Israel,” notes Kepten. “It’s quite a challenge.”
Kepten should know. His resume includes an impressive list of musical shows, which includes Fiddler on the Roof, Beauty and the Beast and Yentl.
Hair was written in a very different day and age, stemming from a completely different zeitgeist. The late 1960s was a time when youngsters rose up and rebelled against the Establishment and their parents’ generation and broke free of the post-World War II gloom and social sobriety. When the musical hit the entertainment scene in 1967, the “summer of love” was in full flow; sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was the vogue; and thousands of young people across the Western world were determined to have their say and carve their own path through life. But are Hair and the messages it conveyed still relevant in 2015? “I think that the issues that Hair addresses, the essence of the protest of the younger generation against the system that ignores the needs and wishes of the individual, unfortunately, are relevant in any era and in any place and any society,” Kepten declares.
“Sadly, I think all that will still be relevant for many more years. Forty years ago, American youngsters protested against the Vietnam War and against going into the army. I see a parallel with the situation here today. You only have to look at the tents that you still have near the train station [in Tel Aviv] or the social protests that brought hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets or the anti-war “candle children” of the 1990s after the Rabin assassination, who called for an end to war. I could cite dozens of examples of young people who got together to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” he says.
That certainly resonates with the Hair storyline, in which a bunch of youngsters drop out of society and find themselves having to face up to opposition and the dictates of their parents and the law.
Kepten says he has done his best to draw on all the above sensibilities and energies in the run-up to the new production.
“I am constantly reminding the actors that Hair, more than any other musical, enables them as young people to express their own ideas and feelings about their own lives and the things they have to deal with on any constant basis – the bureaucracy and all the other stuff they would rather do without,” he stresses.
At the end of the day, of course, Hair is a show and is supposed to entertain.
“The audience comes to be entertained. We didn’t invent that idea,” says the director. “Yes, there is a message in there, but this an entertainment medium, too. I think there were works, particularly in Israel, which were also designed to initiate thought processes. Hair is one of those. You can enjoy and laugh with it and sing the numbers, but you can’t ignore the social issues in there as well.”The production is in Hebrew, including the songs. For tickets and more information: (03) 606-0960 and www.cameri.co.il