Papp Is a Love Person
by Dan Sullivan
The New York Times - October 15, 1967

NOTE: So far, research shows that aside from casting notices in the trades, this is the first mention of Hair in the press.

To see the photo that originally accompanied this article click here.

When a graceful old building is torn down in New York to make room for yet another high-rise ice cube tray, it is very sad, but - change being a law of life in this temporary city - it is not exactly news.  What's news is when an old building survives.  It happened in January of 1966 when the city's Landmarks preservation Commission happily announced that the 113-year old Astor Library at 425 Lafyette Street had been snatched from the jaws of progress by Joseph Papp and the New york Shakespeare Festival.

Since the serene brownstone-and-brick facade of the Astor Library is one of the loveliest examples of early Victorian design in New York, its survival has already earned Mr. Papp some esthetic points among people who don't particularly care what goes on behind it.  But spend a few hours listening to Mr. Papp's dreams for the building - which start coming true at 8:30 P.M. Tuesday with the premiere of a most un-Shakespearean musical called "Hair" - and you are ready to believe it will eventually be a theatrical landmark as well as an architectural one.

The building is, in fact, a merger of three buildings designed in different decades of the same general period.  Walking through it, says Ming Cho Lee, who designed the new interior along with architect Giorgio Cavaglieri, is like "walking through a time capsule of American architecture between 1849 and 1881."

Walking through it with Mr. Papp is even more fun than that.  Like an apartment dweller who has just bought an old Victorian mansion, he is still happily stunned by all the space at his disposal.  And he has plans for every inch of it.  "We'll have concerts up here, great acoustics," he says, showing you a long, empty third floor gallery.  "Maybe a coffee house down here," he says pulling on a light in the cellar.  "Exciting space."

In the North building, Mr. Papp shows you the festival's offices, workshops, cutting rooms (all the costumes for last summer's Shakespeare productions were made there, at a great savings over using an outside shop).  In the south building, which now resembles a bombed-out cellar in 1945 Berlin, you see the beginnings of a 299-seat end-stage (but non-proscenium-arch) theater.  (Work on this building has ceased for the moment while Mr. Papp scouts around for additional funds.)

The climax of the tour is the center building.  Once it was the library's magnificent main reading room;  now - with surprisingly little structural change - it is a 299-seat thrust-stage theater named after one of Mr. Papp's chief financial patrons, Mrs. Florence K. Anspacher.  A smaller downstairs auditorium will one day be used for experimental and children's shows.

The Anspacher, with its graceful columns and grand arching skylight, suggests an age of leisure and grace.  But the plays Mr. Papp's Public theater will produce there will explore the conflicts of the twentieth century.  Hair, for example, is a free-form rock musical about the hang ups of the love generation.  The apparent contradiction between architectural form and dramatic content, between medium and message, is symbolized by the brutal metal light-grid that hangs between the Anspacher stage and that genial skylight.  Mr. Papp finds the shock theatrically exciting.

After 14 years of staging Shakespeare - an activity that will continue during the summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park - it is time for the festival to speak out more "directly" to the society around it, Mr. Papp feels.  This means new plays by new people like Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and galt MacDermot, the young authors of hair.

It also means....more Shakespeare! hair is being directed by Mr. Papp's associate, Gerald Freeman.  For his own debut as a director in the new house, Mr. Papp had selected "La Pieta Di Novembre", a play about a political assassination by the Italian, Franco Brusati.  But now the second play of the Public theater's first season will be an Elizabethan melodrama called "Hamlet".

The substitution came about when the New York public schools showed some reluctance to go along with some of the ideas Mr. Papp had for a touring school production of "Hamlet" - for instance, making the hero a rebellious Negro.  Another factor was Mr. Papp's suspicion that a foreign playwright might not be able to tell Americans much about autumn assassinations that they didn't know already.

"Anyway, HAmlet was pressing on me," Mr. Papp says.  "I've done the play twice, but I've never felt before that I've touched it's core.  I feel that way now.  If i talk it out, I won't be able to direct it,'ll be a new view alright."

Leaving Mr. Papp to ponder the multiple levels of Shakespearean imagery - which are as nothing, one feels, to the multiple levels of idealism, realism, cynicism and faith that are found in Joseph Papp - we turn our attention to the Anspacher stage where Anna Sokolow, the choreographer, was working with the hippie cast of Hair.

"Lu-huv! Lu-huv!" they were chanting.  "Bees! (sic) Flowers! Freedom! Happiness!"  It was supposed to be a Central Park Be-In, and Miss Sokolow tartly told them that she didn't believe it.  "Here, you," she said to a bushy-headed boy.  "Climb that column.  That's your trip, kid."

Shinnying down the pole at the lunch break, the boy turned out to be Gerome Ragni, one of the authors of Hair.  Mr. Ragni, 25, said the play originated in a young people's acting workshop that he had conducted when he was a member of the Open Theater.  His co-librettist, Mr. Rado, 28, is also an actor - last seen in Lion In Winter - who has found himself strongly attracted to the hippie scene.

The composer, Mr. MacDermot, 38, wears a collar and tie, lives on Staten Island, and is, his partners insist, the hippy-est of them all.  he makes no comment but says that, although he admires the younger generation, he doesn't find that they "think very straight.  Of course, young people never do."  His background is the pop-music business, his ambition is to write a rock opera and his interest in the project is perhaps more artistic than philosophical.

Mr. Ragni brought the script of Hair to Mr. Papp when they were both at Yale - Mr. Ragni acting in "Viet-Rock", Mr. Papp teaching a course in Shakespeare.  Mr. Papp found it "exciting but flawed," and has, Mr. Ragni said, knocked himself out to help them remove the flaws.

"Joe Papp is a love person." Mr. Rado says.  "You know the Diggers just opened a new free store in the East Village.  Joe Papp has been doing it for years.  We've battled with him, but we know how good he's been to us.  Imagine trying to do a show like this with a Broadway producer!"

"We're on a new...we're ready to start a new life," says Mr. Papp in his herky-jerky way.  "I feel primed, heightened....I'm 46 years old, I should be getting tired, but I'm exhilarated!  We've got a rhythm of work here that goes like this" - he snaped his fingers click-click - "and it's gonna mean some good work."

"You want to talk disaster? OK, that's always on my mind.  I'll do anything to keep the building alive.  I'll do Ibsen, if you want.  But there's one thing I won't do.  I won't run a menu theater - a little this, a little that.  This theater has to have a point of view.

"Actually, success will be our greatest problem.  Each of our four plays is scheduled to run for eight weeks.  What if we have a hit?  Where do we put it?

"of course, we need money.  We've always needed money.  There are people who have helped us who will help again.  If we fail here, we fail magnificently, but we aren't going to fail.  I have a very strong sense of survival."

"There is nothing cool about Joe." smiles gerald Freeman.

Copyright The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

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