The Music of “Hair!” the Musical

Mariah Sletten | Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Ramon Varela

Ramon Varela | Photographer

“Musicals are, in a way, not reflective of real life,” says Shirley Mier, the music director for Century’s upcoming production of “Hair!” “You’re not going to be walking down the street and just burst into song,” but there’s another facet of reality to consider. She adds: “you may feel as if you could burst into song. You’re so happy, or so despondent, that nothing is adequate except for music… There’s this emotional realism that is depicted in musicals.”

“Hair!” is especially replete with music. “There are 51 songs,” says Mier, “and oftentimes they go one right into the other, so it’s a continuous sequence. The music is an absolutely essential part of the show—and the lyrics, too. The rhythm and the music adds a lot to it.” There seems to be a lyrical theme to the songs which is lists.

Mier says, “The title song, ‘Hair,’ is all about how great the main character’s hair is, and it’s lists of adjectives to describe your hair.” Other songs contain lists of drugs or colors, and some are descriptive of societal issues, like the song “Air,” which brings attention to noxious chemicals that people were breathing at the time. “This was before the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) came along. This is before the massive clean-up effort. Before Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring,’” Mier explains.

“There’s one song which is nothing but a list of racial epithets, and they’re sung by/to black guys in the cast, but they’re kind of singing it back and forth to each other, and (like many things in the show) it’s all about context. They’re basically listing all the stuff that they’ve been called in their lives… and even for the time, it’s meant as kind of a dig at people in society who use these racial epithets.”

You may recognize these or other songs, even if you’ve never heard of the play. “Commercials still play a lot of the music in their stuff, and in underscores in movies and TV shows,” says Paul Aberasturi, the director of Century’s production. “‘Hair!’ was the first musical to be composed entirely with original rock music, and “a lot of the songs became Top Ten songs on the rock’n’roll/pop charts,” says Aberasturi. “This music is just part of our culture, whether people know where it comes from or not.”

Mier and a small ensemble of Century students will be recreating these hit songs for the production. “We started doing musicals in 2010,” Mier says, “and we’ve had a live band for all of them, a live orchestra.” For the musical, the band will be comprised of a guitar, bass, and drums, as well as a trumpet and saxophone, in some of the songs. Mier will be leading the band on keyboard.

In contrast to having a prerecorded soundtrack, “it’s much better to have a live orchestra to react to the live action on stage,” Mier says. “It allows for a lot more flexibility . . . and of course, having live musicians, it’s more exciting.” Aberasturi comments, “It’s like going to a rock concert.”

Mier says she has “music-directed a lot of shows in community theater in past years,” and listed Stages Theater as an example. “I’ve been involved in music directing, musical theater and writing it, for a long time, and I just love the process.” As part of the music department at Century, she also teaches a number of classes, including Popular Music in American Society, Ear Training, and Songwriting.

Mier was on sabbatical last fall, and during that time, composed a piece of music for the Century Chamber Orchestra. She described the work as having a local theme of “historic locations and stories about White Bear Lake.” Mier will not be conducting the piece herself, partly due to her involvement in “Hair!” so Elliot Wilcox, the Century Chamber Orchestra’s music director, has been the caretaker of Mier’s work. “Part of being a composer,” Mier says, “is to make the score, communicate as much information as you can, and just trust that they’ll take good care of it.”

“And I get nervous,” Mier admits, “but it’s exciting, too. It’s like opening a gift—or giving a gift and watching someone open it.”

The Century Chamber Orchestra performs the day after the last performance of “Hair!” in May.

Photo Credit: Ramon Varela
Photo Credit: Ramon Varela