by Cat Strom.
The first Australian production of Hair was staged 50 years ago at the Metro Theatre, in Sydney’s Kings Cross on 4 June 1969.
Produced by Harry M Miller, it was well-reviewed despite a minor hitch at the premiere when the auditorium had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare!
Little can be found about the technical aspects of the 1969 production, and all that remains visually are fuzzy photos and blurry footage. Director Jim Sharman designed the show which was essentially a disc surrounded by scaffolding and featured lights by renowned film and lightshow collective UBU.
A short experimental film by Albie Thoms, a member of UBU, was created for projection over the stage during the ‘Vietnam War’ sequence. Australian artist Roger Foley (AKA Ellis D Fogg), one of the country’s most innovative lighting designers and lumino kinetic sculptor, was a contemporary of Albie and they were good friends.
“Many of the cast were my friends who came to my lightshows and some performed in them before Hair opened,” said Roger.
“Many of the original counter-culture folk were a bit pissed that Harry Miller was making a commercial version of our alternative history. The nude boys and girls on stage and all was old hat at hippy gatherings, but I have to say that Harry brought the alternative story to a straight audience, which was a good thing.
“My friend Albie Thoms and the UBU group did the lightshow for Hair utilising the contrasting colours that we all used in our Lightships since about 1966 … green and amber/yellow rather than red and blue.”
The show ran for nearly two years in Sydney before shifting to Melbourne, premiering on 8 June 1971 and then onto a national tour. Jim Sharman again directed but the show was re-designed by legendary Australian set designer Brian Thomson and his design included old washing machines, TV sets, radios and lawn mowers placed around the stage.
Brian designed his first theatre piece in 1971 and Harry Miller liked what he’d done and asked him to redesign Hair for Melbourne. “At that point Jim wasn’t going to direct so Harry brought in the director who had done the show in London,” commented Brian.
“I showed him my design and he said he wanted it to be like the Broadway and West End versions. I told Harry to get a draftsman to draw this up and I thought I’d walked away but a couple of days later Jim called and asked me to come to his house.
“When I got there my set model was sitting on his coffee table – Jim was back and the UK director was sent home!”
Brian says that he ‘tidied’ the original design by dividing the disc into three segments so it related to the peace sign.
He added the billboard to the back of the stage but most notable was the curved rainbow of lights over the proscenium arch that featured 1500 lightbulbs that all lit up and chased. “It came up at the beginning of Let The Sunshine In at the end of the show and was truly fabulous,” he noted.
Back in the Sixties, coloured globes were achieved by dipping ordinary globes into lamp dip. You warmed the globe first before dipping it and achieving a transparent colour. Initially a beautiful rich colour, over time the heat from the bulb would cause the colour to peel off.
The above photo, which has obviously been colourised, also shows suspended balls which were actually a light up mobile as well as the impressive billboard. “The billboard featured neon and all sorts of things that had never been used in theatre before,” added Brian.
“I had never done theatre before so I didn’t know what should or shouldn’t be used.”
Again Jim Sharman designed the lighting with Brian commenting that at that time there was not the division of creative labour we see today.
“The show had to be done and whilst Jim may not have known all the technicalities of the lamps, he had a team of people who did,” said Brian.
“Back then we all dreamed of lights that could change colour and move! But I think the biggest change has been in the sound, especially microphones. This production was the first to trial a radio mic and I believe Reg Livermore had it but you could hear taxis coming through.
“Jim ran down to the stage, grabbed the microphone, threw it on the stage and jumped on it! That was the end of that particular radio mic phase.”
As the chorus moved and danced around the stage, Brian reported that the sound would come and go depending on where they were in relation to the suspended microphones. In fact the choreography was based around mic cables more than anything else to avoid spaghetti tangles onstage.