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Straw Hat cast works to keep 'Hair' from being a museum piece

Craig Ellingson had to assign some research work to the cast of "Hair," since most of them weren't even born until more than a decade after the show was written.

Craig Ellingson had to assign some research work to the cast of "Hair," since most of them weren't even born until more than a decade after the show was written.

Ellingson is directing the 1968 musical, which is the opening show in this season's MSUM Straw Hat Players season.

Songs like "Aquarius," "Let the Sun Shine In" and "Good Morning Starshine" have become part of the cultural fabric - that last number was featured in a recent "Simpsons" episode - but the warp and woof of hippie culture "has been something that this generation of students I'm working with is really pretty far removed from," he says.

The student anti-war protests of the 1960s and the hippie ethos in general are things today's students don't necessarily know much about, Ellingson says. "We're trying to immerse the kids in as much research as possible."

That research covers everything from people like Timothy Leary and Lyndon Johnson to the different role drugs played in the 1960s, when they were regarded less as a means of escape and more as a spiritual tool.


MSUM senior and cast member Ben Mattson, who plays a high school senior expelled from school because of his hippie lifestyle, says his study of the play has changed his view of the 1960s.

He learned "how serious the whole hippie movement was and specifically about the drug culture within the hippie culture and how that was used," he says.

Ellingson says that the cast also had to understand the way the hippies and the anti-war movement overlapped. Today's students aren't used to standing up for beliefs that go against the mainstream, he says.

That part of the '60s was something of a revelation to the cast, Mattson says.

"I think that today, the youth of America has grown to be sort of apathetic and sort of hopeless," he says. "That spirit that they had in the '60s, I find it sort of inspiring."

Ellingson said some changes have been made in the play as originally written.

The first act originally ended with a nude scene and that's been changed. Ellingson said the cast will be adorned with body paint under blacklight, although they will be "in various stages of undress."

But few musical numbers have been cut, leaving in some deceptively raw lyrics.


One song in the musical is called "Sodomy" and includes a litany of terms for sex acts. The subject matter isn't immediately evident, though, because it's done like a church hymn, he says.

"We've cut some stuff in order to make things flow better," he says. "We've also rearranged some of the running order of the show." But no music was cut for the sake of censorship, he adds.

The music has been an adjustment for the cast, he says.

"It's really poppy and rocky. It's a different way of singing for the kids. That's been a fun learning lesson for them, to see how far they can push. They're running around with microphones with cords and everything, so it really gives them a rocker feel."

Not all of the cast members are local students. Xavier Rice, 25, is a Twin Cities actor who performed in "Hair" there last August.

Like Ellingson and Mattson, he says the play isn't just a museum piece, especially in a nation beset by war and economic uncertainty.

"There's no time other than now that it is more relevant," Rice says. "We're not too far from a draft now."

And on a more personal level, "there is another generation out there that is trying to identify itself," he says. "If done honestly, ('Hair') doesn't become a historical piece."


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

If you go

What: "Hair" presented by MSUM's Straw Hat Summer Theatre Company

When: 7:30 p.m. today through Friday, and June


Where: Roland Dille Center for the ARts Gaede Stage, MSUM

Tickets: $15 for adults, $10 for children 17 and under, $12 for senior citizens, faculty and alumni; $10 each for groups of 10 or more; and $10 for Tri-College University students


Info: (218) 477-2271

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