Brushing Up HAIR for a New Generation: Allison Guinn Is No Happy Hippie and That’s OK

HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical; Fox Theatre; May 17-22; Ticketmaster; presented by Broadway Across America.

When actress Allison Guinn showed up for a 700-person cattle call audition for Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR, she had 16 bars to show she had what it takes to join what most people think of as a celebration of peace, love and understanding. She picked Janis Joplin’s “Turtle Blues” and screamed “I’m a mean, mean woman, and I don’t mean one man no good.” She was certain that she wouldn’t get cast.

Then three weeks later, Allison found out that seemingly risky choice was exactly the right one to make, scoring her the part of a disgruntled hippie in the Tribe ensemble. “Director Diane Paulus took my hand and led me down a hall of pictures, then she pointed at one of Grace Slick looking really heavy and giving me the finger,” Allison recalls. “She said, ‘That’s you.’” Later Allison would also get two more roles as the conservative Mother of draft-resistor protagonist Claude and a Buddhist monk called Buddhadalirama.

HAIR has a reputation for being the hippie-dippie musical. After all, what’s more New Agey sounding than “Let the Sunshine In” and “Age of Aquarius.” But Guinn, who’s more into the less cheerful early ‘60s beat generation than the late ‘60s Summer of Love counter-culture says, not so fast. “It’s easy to paint with broad strokes and say this show has such wonderful bright colors and we say ‘love’ every fifth word,” she adds. “But it’s not just all laidback and groovy. It’s about this quest for a new life because the old way of life obviously isn’t working. Society is at a boiling point. All these people have been killed [in Vietnam], all these riots happened, it’s a period of great change, and these people are at the pinnacle of it.

In other words, HAIR beats with passion and anger, too. And it’s important to remember that HAIR really was the first of the big rock musicals and established a dynamic new musical theatre genre, Allison says, citing Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT and BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON as some of its more subversive recent progeny. “Before HAIR, you had all those gooey musicals about love—Rodgers and Hammerstein and all that stuff—but the conflict didn’t hit you in the face with its honesty like HAIR did,” she adds.

Onstage Allison’s biggest challenge is slipping in and out of three vastly different characters. Even though her Tribe/ensemble character has no lines, she was encouraged by Diane to create a persona. You’ll recognize her by a floppy hat with a flower in it, billowy pantaloons, a blue maxi dress that the costume designer dubbed “Loretta Lynn,” cowboy boots and her distinctive sneer. “She’s not only angry but passionate, and she also has a lot of joy,” Allison says. “She’s amped to 11 the whole time. She’s a little Janis Joplin, a little Grace Slick, but a little June Carter at the same time.”

In the original HAIR, Mother was more of an archetypal parental figure, square and disapproving of her son’s rejection of a more conventional approach to life. But Allison was charged with humanizing that role. After all, audience members who first saw the musical in the ‘60s now may be the parents of kids the same age as they were at the time. “The parents are not evil,” Allison says. “They want what’s best for their child ultimately. They think that a job and family and maybe going into the army would be the best thing, and they have never encountered the long hair, free love kind of life.”

Allison’s hardest transition, though, is in and especially out of Buddhadalirama, a stooped-over, elderly Buddhist monk. “It’s very strange and I don’t want to give anything away, but at the time, sacrificial monks lit themselves on fire on streetcars [in protest of war],” she says, adding that serious true occurrence of the ‘60s is given a provocative, even humorous twist because Claude sees the character while in a hallucinogenic state. Then eight seconds later, she has to straighten up and be Mother again.

With war overseas, talk of “change” and a conservative pushback, HAIR is as relevant today as ever, Allison says. She even points to an African-American character who stands up and proclaims “I’m the president of love.”

Like many of her costars in the, Allison wasn’t even born during the Summer of Love. However, she does embrace a Retro lifestyle, joking that she’s sure the musical’s publicists picked her for this interview because she’s a vintage clothes junkie. In what little spare time she has while on tour with HAIR, she loves to check out local vintage shops and listen to her favorite Retro music such as old-time mountain songs (she grew up in the small town of Erwin, Tenn. in the heart of Appalachia), rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Southern Culture on the Skids and, yes, June Carter. “She was such a clown, almost Lucille Ball, while everyone else in her family was so stoic,” Allison says. “They were all from the Depression era and had a somber look on their faces.”

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