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When Chicago played the Warner Theatre in the early 1980s, it had spectacle to burn: towering sets, flashy costumes, Ann Reinking in peak form, and neon enough to bathe the whole auditorium in a hellish glow. Audiences kept it going for a snappy five performances.

By contrast, this spring’s minimalist revival of the show at the National Theatre amounted to razzle-dazzle redux: everyone in basic black, a concert staging, and one tinselly curtain to provide glitz for the finale. It played 12 weeks, ending its run only because other engagements beckoned.

Hair at the 2,000-seat Warner a decade ago was big, noisy, and tiresome enough to wear out its welcome well before intermission. At the 100-seat Studio SecondStage this summer, the audience is so wired to its seats that an actor jokily posing as a belligerent security guard must chase it out into the lobby so actors can retrieve the clothes they discarded during their celebrated nude scene.

Less is more? Smaller’s better? Well, yes, though it’s probably not wise to draw too many conclusions from such direct comparisons. After all, in eight weeks of extensions at Studio, Hair will play to fewer patrons than it did in a single weekend at the Warner. And Chicago’s comparatively opulent ’80s production didn’t benefit from from a midrun Tony win by a Broadway cousin, as did this year’s pared-down version.

Still, there’s little doubt that the current trend toward musical-comedy downsizing—initially dictated by theater economics, but increasingly a matter of directorial choice—is proving popular with patrons who once flocked only to shows with flying truck tires and plummeting chandeliers.

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What’s intriguing here in Washington is that the local fondness for modestly scaled musicals predates by nearly a decade the Broadway revolution spawned by such megaspectacle flops as Big, Victor/Victoria, and Sunset Boulevard, and the ascendance of diminutive tuners like Rent (opening this week at the National) and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk (coming in November).

Area audiences now have under their belts some nine years of intimately reimagined Sondheim and Kander & Ebb shows at Signature Theatre, a half-decade’s worth of jewellike African-American revues at Studio, and a regular diet of diminutive Gilbert & Sullivan from Interact Theatre Company, to cite just three troupes that have traded heavily in the form.

Their output has certainly varied in quality, as has that of Arena Stage and other companies that once dismissed musicals as dinner-theater fare but that have lately discovered virtues—both artistic and economic—in the form. Still, a consistent, areawide emphasis on intimacy over spectacle has had a noticeable effect on patron taste and sophistication.

Take the matter of amplification. D.C. audiences have become accustomed, as have few audiences in the nation, to the sound of unamplified singing from their professional stages. And as patrons have become savvy enough to complain when mikes are used unnecessarily, casting has improved. Where Signature once recruited singers mostly from area dinner theaters, it has lately ranged much further afield, bringing, for instance, the brilliant Anne Kanengeiser here from Chicago to sing Fosca in Passion (she’s currently appearing in the Broadway-bound Ragtime), and pairing her with rising Broadway star Lewis Cleale.

Along the way, patrons hereabouts have also discovered that theatrical intimacy—the sort that, say, lets an audience feel it’s eavesdropping on Fosca and Georgio from Passion’s gloomy shadows rather than listening to them trade arias from across the footlights—is at once more real and more compelling than all those seemingly realistic designer hydraulics of which Broadway has lately been so fond. When songs are allowed to develop in the manner of conversations, the audience naturally feels closer to the characters. And patrons also feel more in-the-moment, whether that moment involves being scrutinized by Nazi stormtroopers in Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub, or being pelted with crumbs from Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies in Sweeney Todd.

Obviously, such shows were not designed to be performed in so intimate a fashion. Musicals are, by and large, presentational affairs that rely on that invisible fourth wall between actors and audience to make sense of the fact that singing is going on only on one side. Factor in the economics of a form that requires upward of a dozen musicians in the pit in addition to however many characters an author requires to tell his story, and you’ve pretty much guaranteed that most musicals will be performed in large theaters.

With Phantom of the Opera currently raking in more than a million dollars a week at the Kennedy Center, it’s obviously not yet time to write off musical extravaganzas. Audiences have been in love with spectacle since the Greeks invented stage machinery to float their thespian gods in celestial chariots. But that doesn’t mean large venues are ideal, or even really suitable for shows that seem to justify them when they become big hits.

At Studio’s Hair, for instance, it’s clear from the very start that the company—young and out of touch with the ’60s though it might be—is going to get the show’s touchy-feely ambiance righter than was ever possible on Broadway for the simple reason that they can actually touch the audience. In the middle of the song “Aquarius,” I got a big hug from Woof, the goofy character who later turns out to have a crush on Mick Jagger. Intimate theater doesn’t get much more intimate than that (or at any rate, if it does it risks degenerating into less formal sorts of nighttime recreation).

And while that sort of interaction has always been a part of this self-styled “American tribal love-rock musical,” in larger venues it can only happen to those situated in aisle seats. In the close confines of Studio, I’d guess about 85 per cent of the audience—everyone who isn’t actively shrinking into corners as cast members approach—routinely experiences some sort of performer contact. If not an embrace, then a touch on the shoulder, or a proffered joint (tobacco, alas), or a hand at getting up from cross-legged positions on the floor when the action shifts to another part of the building.

At the end of the evening, patrons can pretty much dance with performers until everyone’s pooped, strike up conversations, even agree to meet on the sidewalk after the show. The stagey “love” and Broadway “rock” have always been there in the script, but of all the productions I’ve seen, this is the only one that’s felt remotely “tribal.” Small wonder, then, that author James Rado has been back to take in his creation three times. Small wonder…literally.CP