Keeping the Groovy Going'
At its best, American musical theatre is uniquely able to capture a particular time in history while remaining timeless enough to endure. Whether it’s The Music Man with its charming and nostalgic glimpse into early 20th century life in Indiana or Grease! which pays loving homage to the 1950s, the stories take us back in time without seeming removed from our current lives. Universal themes and memorable songs help keep us grounded even as we escape.
The award-winning musical Hair, which won Tony Awards for Best Musical in 1968 and for Best Revival in 2009, is decidedly a product of its times, portraying the turbulent and controversial era of the 1960s when Vietnam protests and anti-establishment ideals were de rigueur. While the attitudes and politics of Hair decidedly represented a segment of the population in the late 1960s, the musical proved as controversial and divisive as the movement itself. In fact, Indiana found itself in the midst of the controversy – or at least the response to the controversy – when three of its towns (South Bend, Evansville and Indianapolis) either denied booking for the show or found picket lines protesting themes that were deemed by some to be un-American.
Almost 50 years later, Hair can still spark strong responses, though now through the guise of a different perspective. The current touring production which comes to the Embassy Theatre next week is now playing to audiences of all ages. It’s that very different life experience and point of view which Erik Kopacsi, who plays tribe leader Claude, thinks makes the show a hit.
“Older audience members remember the 60s. They remember all of that stuff and experienced all of those things and have very strong feelings about it. The younger audience, people my age, are facing a lot of those same things that are going on with the characters. They have their own feelings of anti-hate, anti-prejudice, pro-peace that are happening on the stage. Now there are hipsters who are really looking for their own place, trying to find their own sense of style. They’re trying to find where they fit in, and they see that going on in the show.”
The music, which includes songs like “Good Morning Starshine,” “The Age of Aquarius” and “I Believe in Love,” remains incredibly catchy, even as it deals with serious themes like drugs, war and sexuality. The nudity still shocks even some jaded audience members, and some people still leave the show as much from the emotional impact as disapproval of content which Kopacsi thinks speaks to the power of the show.
As Kopacsi found his way to this show’s cast, he took a sometimes circuitous route to a career in musical theatre. A native of the Canadian province of Ontario and now living in Toronto, he began as many do, by playing the piano. Although he admits he fell away from it for a time (“I was the typical boy wanting to play video games”), by high school he was interested enough to resume playing and took a drama class which introduced him to a new world. He played piano and guitar but had no experience singing, so he joined the choir to work on his voice.
“I got to work on my voice, and it was fun. Then I heard there was going to be a Gilbert and Sullivan kind of show and they were looking for tenors, so I thought I would just try out for it and got the part. The music was so catchy and so fun that I thought I wanted to do opera at that point.”
The move from no vocal experience to possible opera training is a huge step, which Kopacsi readily admits.
“Making that shift in a short time is rather miraculous, but I think it goes to show that the musical training I had already gotten by then was so good that I was able to make that kind of progress so quickly.”
Even now Kopacsi considers himself more of a singer than an actor, but his college career at Sheridan College prepared him to do anything. He says he did both straight plays (Amadeus) and Shakespeare (Love’s Labour’s Lost) along with musicals (Rent and Sweeney Todd) but found great satisfaction in something remarkably traditional.
“We did a production of Oklahoma which is as classic as you get, and I didn’t think I was going to love it. But I did. That was a great experience, one of my favorites.”
After finishing school, Kopacsi worked with an amateur theater group he started and began auditioning for roles, and that’s how he came to the Hair cast last fall. Auditions were held in October, rehearsals in December, and the show hit the road in January where it will remain through May 15. He says the opportunity allows him to travel and do what he loves, an irresistible combination. He also gets to stretch his stage skills since his duties go beyond the norm.
“There are 16 of us in the cast that are also playing the music. I’m playing the guitar, and it’s surprisingly challenging. Of course, we’re up there acting, but we’re also playing and while we’re playing we’re doing our choreography. So your fingers and feet are all working at the same time, and it’s definitely challenging but totally rewarding.”
The experience has led Kopacsi to suggest to young actors that they expand their repertoire of skills.
“I tell people that if you don’t already know how to play an instrument, learn one. Performers need to be versatile, and you don’t know when it’s going to come in handy to be able to pick up an instrument.”
During his down time, Kopacsi plays in a band back in Ontario, and he’s hoping to work with them more when the show ends in May. Beyond that he just has to see what happens.
“I have a love of film and would like to do that, so I’m thinking I’ll get an agent to see if I can find some work there. But mostly you just do your job and then go back home to see what’s next. You just wait to see what the future holds.”