The nudity is all part of the show...

Director Michael Burnie
Director Michael Burnie

Anniversaries coincide as Brighton Theatre Group marks its 50th birthday with a production of the musical Hair which also first saw the light of day in 1968.

Worthing-based Michael Burnie will direct the show which will run at Brighton’s Old Market from February 20-24.

The ground-breaking tribal rock musical of the late 1960s, with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and score by Galt MacDermot, is a product of the 1960s hippie counterculture and sexual revolution – a rock musical built on optimism.

Based in New York’s Greenwich Village, it tells the story of a group of flower children fighting a peaceful revolution in a war-hungry world. The time is 1968 and Vietnam is sucking the life force from America’s young men, to the tune of 3,500 body bags per week. The flower children sing a new song, heralded by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary and Andy Warhol, a song of freedom for the body and mind, beads, flowers, freedom and happiness.

For Michael, it’s a show rich in associations: “I was in a production of Hair when I was 17 in Manchester, and about ten years after that, I went to Europe and joined an American cast. They went to Europe and a couple of people left. They came to England to audition and I joined them for a couple of years going around Europe.”

Since getting back to the UK, Michael has gone on to direct the show three times: “Last year I was lucky enough to go off to New York to audition an American cast. We had 700-900 people auditioning over three days and we narrowed it down to 16.

“Being with those Americans for two years on tour, it made me realise what is so fantastic about American performers, how talented and how fantastically driven they are. They are always at the top of their game. They are so great to work with.

“I flew out to Frankfurt and I rehearsed them for a couple of weeks and would fly out every couple of weeks on tour to catch up with them.”

And now Hair comes back into Michael’s life once again, with Brighton Theatre Group using Hair to mark both the group’s and the musical’s half century.

“This is the biggest cast I have ever had, and it is something that they have never experienced before, this fantastic, organic, very free musical. A lot of people don’t realise these songs came from it. They know the songs but they don’t know they are from Hair. And then you realise what a great musical it is. People know about Hair and they think about the nakedness, but that’s not really the big thing about the show. It is only a really tiny bit of it, and it is the reasons behind it that are the important thing.”

The context is that at a peaceful protest a policeman fires his gun because he thinks one of the protesters was armed. At the next protest, one by one the protesters start to strip off to prove that they couldn’t possibly be carrying a weapon. With the professional casts, the nudity is written into the contract.

“But this is very different. This is an amateur group of people who lead normal lives and have normal jobs. We had a discussion about it all, and the great thing is that everyone embraced the full show and everything that it meant, and I am very proud of them for doing that. It is just a little part of the show, but it is a huge thing to do, and everyone is doing a really great job with this show.”