In Chappaqua, Horace Greeley has the region’s only seniors-only musical and the Class of 2015 made a memorable choice: “Hair,” the “Age of Aquarius” musical, with frank talk about race, sex, drugs and war.
Director Christopher Schraufnagel, who has divided the cast’s 233 seniors into three tribes, said the show was chosen by the seniors, and brought something rare to the annual fund-raiser: controversy.
“People took to social media and expressed their disapproval, which they’re allowed to do,” the director said. “It’ll be interesting to see the fallout.”
The content is racially and sexually charged, Schraufnagel says, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be handled with sensitivity.
“There are difficult issues to handle,” Schraufnagel said, “and I’ve been very impressed with the administration and the community at large for embracing it and being unbelievably supportive. All good theater, going back to (Bertolt) Brecht, is educational theater if it causes a conversation about these issues.”
To this year’s seniors, Vietnam is something in history books. To the teens in “Hair,” it was an everyday fact of life-and-death. Schraufnagel said the play has changed the students’ perspectives.
“They’re really getting it. They’re really understanding it, which is awesome.”
When people hear “Hair,” the first thing they think of is nudity. Act 1 ends with a famous nude scene — a “be-in” — in which members of the tribe strip down.
Schraufnagel said that was part of the initial backlash to the show, but the kids at Greeley won’t be shown in the altogether. The famous scene will be played behind an appropriate curtain, with the cast in full body suits, backlit.
“It’ll all be done in shadow,” Schraufnagel said.
Some of the language stays and some doesn’t, the director said. The language tied to race will remain, he said, because “it sends an important message. Those words are more important than f-bombs.”
“The way the words are being used, whether by homosexual characters or characters of color, you’re using those words to empower you, turning those words, which are derogatory, and taking ownership of them and using them as power for a disenfranchised group of people who have no power. That’s why they’re necessary.”
“It’s not ‘Bye Bye, Birdie,'” Schraufnagel said with a laugh, adding that ushers will be empowered to talk to patrons who bring young children to the show and warn them about the content. “Eyebrows would not have been raised for ‘Bye Bye, Birdie.'”
The musical’s issues are the same issues contemporary teens face.
While he didn’t choose the musical, and is merely a contractor hired by the PTA, Schraufnagel says it’s a favorite of his. As for whether the topics are too hot for high schoolers to handle, the director is emphatic.
“You’re talking about a disenfranchised group of people who are all teenagers who just dropped out of high school because they’re not buying into a system,” he said. “What better group to do it with than high school kids? These are kids who are not buying into the system. They should be played by 18-year-olds, as opposed to seeing it on Broadway being played by 30-year-olds. In that way, I think it’s totally appropriate.
“Whether we’re ready to talk about it or not, they’re experimenting sexually, they’re experimenting with drugs, that’s what teenagers do. Let’s do it as art and open a dialogue about it, instead of sweeping it under the rug, like ‘No, that doesn’t happen in our town.’”
The other musicals on the ballot: “9 to 5,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
The vote wasn’t close. It was “Hair,” by a landslide. Of the 353 kids in Greeley’s senior class, 233 of them will be on the stage.
One of those is Daniel Laranjeira.
“I didn’t know if I really wanted to be in it,” he said. “But I auditioned, just because I figured everybody’d be doing it, and I absolutely love it.”
His audition song was un-“Hair”-like: Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”
He landed in Tribe C.
Matt Solnick, 18, plays Claude, the lead, in his first-ever musical. He has been playing guitar for years, but was petrified at the thought of singing in front of others. The stagefright he feared at auditions has dissipated during the rehearsal process.
“I like how the play is light and fun until half way through the second act and then unexpectedly turns dark and intense and by the end of the play everybody’s in tears,” Solnick said. “That’s a great transition that people won’t expect.
“The seriousness of war starts to show. At the beginning, people are joking about it and making fun of it. And then you realize how real it is. And these were people my age getting drafted and dying.”
Michela Masotti, 18, a theater veteran at Greeley who’ll study theater at NYU Tisch next year, plays Sheila.
And that’s the beauty of the senior musical, whether it’s “Hair” or “Bye Bye, Birdie” — you have absolute newbies alongside theater kids, sharing the experience.
“Matt’s amazing,” Masotti said. “I feel like I’m more nervous to sing in front of everybody else than he is. He’s so confident — or he pretends to be.”
Masotti was 12 when she saw the recent Broadway revival. At the vote for the senior musical, she was rooting for “Hair.”
“Anything I didn’t understand went right over my head and I still loved the show,” she said. “It had been six years since I’d seen it. But you get much more connected to the characters and the story when you’re playing it than when you’re just watching it. Or when you’re listening to your grandparents talk about it.”
When it burst on the scene, “Hair” was revolutionary in terms of theatrical structure and content. Much like “Rent” did for the AIDS/HIV discussion, “Hair” put the war front and center in a way that was so far removed from Rodgers & Hammerstein that it marked a milestone. It broke the rules.
In rehearsal, Schraufnagel stages a battle scene, urging the seniors to take chances, to make bold acting choices. Having taught them stage combat, he spurs them on.
“You have to kill each other,” he shouts as wave after wave of seniors circles the stage.
“You’re going to kill her with your bare hands! Make it real! This isn’t a game! This is life and death!”
“Hair”—7 p.m., April 16; 8 p.m., April 17; 2 and 8 p.m., April 18—$20—sellingticket.com/HGHS
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Horace Greeley. Enjoy!