Paris Remillard never expected to take center stage as Claude Bukowski in a Broadway opening night performance of Hair. As a Tribe member since the Tony-winning revival’s original Central Park concerts in 2007, Remillard has celebrated multiple Hair openings around town. But it took three years for the actor and his real-life BFF Steel Burkhardt to step into the starring roles of Claude and Berger in the show’s national tour, which is making a surprise return to Broadway thanks to a summer booking at the St. James Theatre. Remillard’s Claude is a gently conflicted sweetheart who shares a sizzling chemistry with Burkhardt’s Berger. The soft-spoken actor talked about his Hair history and why he never gets tired of “Let the Sun Shine In.”
How does it feel to get your very own Broadway opening as the star of Hair?
It’s hard to believe. I’m the kind of person who likes to look back at things to experience them so I don’t get freaked out in the moment. I’m what Mike Myers calls a “situational extrovert.” I was always shy as a kid, and if I’m not onstage, I don’t want anyone looking at me. It’s easier for me to pretend I’m in Hershey, Pennsylvania, rather than Broadway.
And yet you’ve spent the greater part of four years in a show that requires every cast member to be hugely extroverted.
Yeah, you can’t get more literally naked than we were! [Laughs.] Somewhere in my mind, I flip a switch right before the show starts so I won’t get nervous.
Did you and Steel Burkhardt [Berger] say to yourselves, “It’s about time we got to play these roles in New York”?
I’m more afraid of success than most people, so I don’t ever think in terms of “It’s my time now.” I loved my Tribe track, and I love doing Claude, too. This entire experience has been nothing but amazing surprises.
You know Claude inside out by now. How would you describe him?
Claude is very much like I am, which is why I think the character sits so well with me. My dad always said that I’m a spherical thinker: I see situations from all sides, which is good in a philosophical way, but it’s harder for me to see things in black and white and make decisions. Claude absolutely agrees with his friends that the [Vietnam] war is wrong and that they should protest and try to stop it. At the same time, he agrees with this father and the government that it’s his duty as an American to go, and it would be insulting to the sacrifices other men made if he were to evade the draft. He’s caught between these two worlds.
This may sound weird, but you and Steel are the most believable couple on the stage.
Steel and I are best friends in real life. This was our first Broadway show, and the first minute of the first day of rehearsal for the  concerts in the park, he sat next to me and said, “Hey, I think we have the same agent.” We were both covers [for Berger and Claude] from the beginning, and we’re very similar and very open. I could not be happier to be onstage with him every night; it makes all the difference for me. I feel the same way about Caren Tackett [Sheila] and Kacie Sheik [Jeanie] and Darius Nichols [Hud]. It’s so comforting and satisfying to look into somebody’s eyes and have them look back at you with exactly the same intensity and commitment and focus. This cast is a dream.
Did [director] Diane Paulus encourage you to play up the romantic connection between Berger and Claude?
Absolutely. Diane came to see us and said, “Think of almost a more feminine kind of sexuality.” For me as Claude, there’s always been that dynamic. It’s never spoken, but implied. I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. There’s a scene where two soldiers are in a farmhouse cooking, and the main character talks about them being closer than lovers. There’s a bond between friends in an extreme situation that’s very intimate, and that’s what Claude and Berger have.
Hair librettist James Rado was Broadway’s first Claude. Has he been helpful?
He’s been very supportive from the beginning. Some nights he will say, “That was absolutely perfect,” and to hear that from the person who created it is the ultimate compliment. The show is a living organism to him; it will never be finished. He’ll come in with 10 new pages of dialogue and Diane will be like, “OK, we’ll read them, but the show is set at this point.” [Laughs.] We put a handful of new lines into the parent scene for the tour and rearranged a few other things. Jim always has ideas.
You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. Does that help in playing a Hamlet-like character?
You know, I actually watched Hamlet again before we started the tour; it’s about that same deep struggle to figure things out. The first time I went on as Claude, the casting directors at the Public came backstage and said, “We had no idea you could do this.” I had met them auditioning for Shakespeare in the Park, and they didn’t know I could sing. I never really knew I was a singer either—I accidentally started singing when a friend back in Minnesota cast me in Godspell.
Hair must be a hell of a show to sing.
Physically and vocally, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, because half the time you’re running full-tilt while you’re singing full-belt. I’ve lost 15 pounds since we started the tour. You’re doing aerobics for three hours while you’re singing.
What’s your strategy for not losing too much weight?
I finish the show and go eat waffles and French toast! I just try to keep calories in my body because we use everything we have. That’s why it’s the most satisfying show I’ve ever done: You hardly ever leave the stage, and when you’re done, there’s nothing left.
Do you ever get sick of greeting the audience when they come onstage at the end of the show?
Oh god, absolutely not. How often do you finish My Fair Lady and get to hug everyone in the audience? [Laughs.] To look in people’s eyes and thank them for coming and see that they enjoyed the experience is amazing.
Is it true you didn’t go to London with the show because you didn’t want to leave your girlfriend?
Yep, Courtney Reed. She was in In the Heights at the time. She’s in Seattle right now doing Aladdin [as Princess Jasmine] with [Book of Mormon director] Casey Nicholaw.
How have you two handled the separations while you’ve been on the road in Hair?
It actually has worked out really well. We had a layoff for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we started the tour in New Haven and DC, which are just a bus or train ride away. This is the longest stretch we’ve been apart, because she’s in Seattle and I was in Durham and Atlanta, five weeks in Florida and now New York. But she’ll be back at the beginning of August.
It must be nice that you and Courtney understand the demands of musical theater.
What’s cool is that when we first started dating, I was in the Tribe and covered Woof and Claude, and she played Carla in In the Heights and covered Vanessa and Nina. Our jobs were almost exactly the same, so we knew what the other person was going through in terms of our daily existence.
What’s coming up after your stint on Broadway?
After September 10, we have a week-long layoff and then we go to Dallas, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco. We’re booked through April.
Are you looking forward to nine more months in Hair?
Absolutely. I get to spend my evening singing songs and hanging out with some of my favorite people in the world. What could possibly be better?
See Paris Remillard in Hair at the St. James Theatre.