As a preppy teenager, Jase Smith didn't care for "long, beautiful hair."
"My parents were total hippies," says Smith, artistic director of the Firehouse Theatre Project. When they took him to band festivals, he says, "I could not stand it."
So he didn't exactly feel compelled to direct "Hair." But after going through some old photos of his parents a couple of years ago, he says, he decided it was something he had to do.
"It's the first great American rock musical," Smith says. "There was nothing like this before, and it was revolutionary for Broadway."
The groundbreaking show premiered off-Broadway in 1967, following a group of hippies known as the Tribe. In the way it addressed the Vietnam draft, hippie counterculture, drug use, the sexual revolution — and the show's famous nude scene — "Hair" was unlike anything that had come before.
"It's that period the '60s where you have tremendous change, you have the assassination of leaders," Smith says. The musical "encapsulates the changes and strife that the country went through."
To aid in his cast's portrayal of the period, Smith invited people to the Firehouse who lived through the era, including an actor who was involved with the original workshop production of "Hair."
"We met with Vietnam veterans and people who chose not to go to war," says Matt Polson, who plays Claude. His character agonizes about what to do after being drafted. "As a cast we wanted to deliver this message in a way that is respectful to them."
With its psychedelic rock 'n' roll score, Polson says, songs are challenging both melodically and lyrically.
"It's unlike any other music that you'll see onstage, and it really speaks to the time," Polson says. "The music is just really vibrant and alive and creative. It's risky in some ways, and it not only challenges the singers but it challenges the audience."
Nicholas Aliff, who plays Berger, says the vocals along with Starr Foster's choreography have been demanding. "The most difficult thing for me has just been endurance," he says, "singing what I have to sing while not pulling any punches on movement."
Through the years, "Hair" has been interpreted a number of ways, with productions ranging from campy to extremely dark. Smith says he wants this staging to appeal to all.
"I want people who lived in that period — regardless of their feelings about the Vietnam War — to enjoy it," he says. "This musical broke all kinds of barriers with race and women's issues. I don't think we'd have shows like 'Rent' and 'Cabaret' and 'Spring Awakening' without 'Hair' to start it all off."
Aliff has appreciated the blending of elements from different revivals, he says, and promises that it will pay off for the audience. "This entire cast, the vocal quality and overall production quality are going to surprise a lot of people," he says. "I've done multiple shows at the Firehouse, and up to this point, this is the one I'm most proud of." S
"Hair" runs June 26-July 19 at Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. For tickets and information call 355-2001 or visit firehousetheatre.org.