By ERIC GRODE
In the final haunting moments of Hair, the entire cast (with one crucial exception) files its way up the aisles singing an a cappella rendition of "Let the Sunshine In," but once they run back for curtain calls, the vibe changes instantly. Audience members stream not toward the exits but onto the stage, joining the exultant "tribe" to dance and sing along to "Sunshine" and the title song.
Just as these grinning, hopping, Playbill-clutching men and women change from passive spectators to active participants, the backstage crew of Hair undergoes its own transformation. While their overall responsibilities remain the same---getting people on and off the stage safely and efficiently---the number of people they mange increases exponentially.
Billy Barnes, the show's stage manager, says that he and his team can comfortably squeeze 150-200 audience members onto the St. James Theatre stage. "We want the stage to be as full as it can because then it's very exciting," he explains. "If you cut it off too soon, it's gonna look sparse."
Barnes---along with a few other crew members, ushers and even cast members---must maximize the traffic yet minimize the risk. They have to make sure audience members don't try to climb onto the set or take their shirts off. (They have been successful at the former but not always the latter.) They have to get everyone off the stage just as quickly. And they have to do this without killing the buzz generated by "the American tribal love rock musical." Here's how they do it:
At a recent evening performance, Barnes made crew member Katie McKee the primary traffic cop. She took a position stage left to help keep the various people-minders in sync. Then, as the curtain calls reached their conclusion, stagehands with portable railings hustled out from the wings. They quickly installed the railings onto steps leading up to the stage.
At the bottom of the steps, a pair of security guards stood like particularly accommodating bouncers, and ushers helped the audience members climb up to join the beaming actors. Certain repeat visitors were alluded to backstage---"Jennifer" and "Sparkles"---but both were no-shows on this night.
Barnes says the goal is to "maneuver audience members upstage at first, so that we have a sense when the stage is getting too full." But on this particular night, this seemed to happen on its own. McKee and the nearer security guard made occasional eye contact to see if saturation had been reached; on the nights when that does happen, she signals for him to block the way, at which point designated ushers and tribe members coax the stragglers into the area right in front of the stage, where the pit orchestra traditionally resides.
(In this production of Hair, the orchestra performs on stage. The audience members may be picking up some bad habits from Matt DeAngelis, who plays Woof; at the performance in question, he climbed up to the elevated percussion area, got his hands on a drumstick and alternated between striking a cymbal and groping a guitarist with it.)
The crowd this night was plentiful but not nerve-rackingly so; the only slight hitch came when the music ended. "What usually happens is that when the actors leave the stage, the people leave the stage," Barnes says. But McKee is a bit more specific: "They usually stay up there until Paris leaves."
Sure enough, Paris Remillard, who plays the lead role of Claude, was smiling and posing gamely for a series of photos well after the security guards had begun to coax everyone off the stage. "Once the cameras start coming out, things kind of break down," said McKee, who quickly stepped in with a firm-but-pleasant "Last picture, guys!" Roughly six minutes had elapsed since the railings had come out from the wings.
Touring Broadway shows find themselves in a huge variety of theatres, which also affects the logistics of audience control. (This company of Hair began on the post-Broadway tour, and it will head back on the road once it leaves the St. James on September 10.) The width of the stage is a major factor, and Barnes will position stage managers in each wing at particularly wide venues. However, Scott Pask's set, which moves from city to city, largely dictates the size of the performing space everywhere, regardless of a theatre's size.
Barnes says the finale is a concern every time the production comes to a new city. "We meet with the house manager at each theatre and go over three things: The cast will be out in the aisles a lot, they'll be changing in the lobby, and then there's the dance party. That last one is always when they get a little nervous. But it's never really an issue after the first night."
But even on those nights when the St. James is stuffed and not everyone makes it up there, Barnes says he has never had an unpleasant or heated situation with any disgruntled would-be tribe member. He adds, "I don't really worry about it anymore, mostly because of the way people feel at the end of Hair.The audiences here aren't like the audiences at, I don't know, a Def Leppard concert."
Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).