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How Hair's Nude Hippies Changed Broadway Forever

From the soaring first notes of its opening song, “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars,” Hair exudes a joyful anarchy that shook Broadway 40 years ago, proving there’s more than one way to write and stage a successful musical. A magical revival at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre drew SRO crowds last summer, and now most of that talented young cast is headed to Broadway to bring Hair to a generation not yet born when the show’s hippies created a sensation the first time around.

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It all started in 1964, when actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni were cast in an off-Broadway revue called Hang Down Your Head and Die. The show closed after one performance, but the two performers struck up a friendship and decided to collaborate. “I had wanted to write a musical since I was a teenager,” says Rado, still fit and feisty at 77. He and Ragni (who died of cancer in 1991) knew exactly what they wanted to write about: the young people who were hanging out in the East Village, growing their hair and dodging the draft. “Music was an organic part of their lives,” Rado says of the hippies, “and we felt it was a natural [opportunity] to create something new.”

Although Rado had written music for his own pop band, he and Ragni decided to concentrate on lyrics and dialogue and find a composer to set their words to music. After several false starts, they met Canadian-born Galt MacDermot, a conservative-looking husband and father who had never heard of a hippie when he met the shaggy-haired duo. He had, however, released an influential album called Shapes of Rhythm, and Rado realized immediately that MacDermot was the man to help bring his characters to life.

“Galt was very much a rhythmic composer,” explains Rado. “His use of chords was very fresh and soulful. He had his own take on the elements of pop music, and his melodies were always a surprise to us.” Now 80, MacDermot remains active, and played keyboards with the pit band during Hair’s 40th anniversary concerts in Central Park in September 2007, which featured many of the actors now headed to Broadway. Why did he respond to the work of two aspiring lyricists? “I thought it was funny; it just amused me,” MacDermot recalled in the documentary film Hair: Let the Sun Shine In Alive Mind DVD.

While developing their show, Rado and Ragni continued to act. Ragni had a part in Richard Burton’s Hamlet, which inspired the song “What a Piece of Work Is Man” in Hair. Rado created the role of Richard the Lionhearted in The Lion in Winter, and the two co-starred in Mike Nichols’ Chicago production of The Knack. Not surprisingly, they ended up playing the leading roles in Hair, which greatly resembled their own personalities.

“Gerry was a wild, gregarious, outgoing person, and that was Berger,” Rado says of the show’s free-spirited hero. “I seemed to be more of a Claude character,” he says of Berger’s pal, who drives the show’s very loose plotline as he ponders whether to burn his draft card and, later, how to respond when he’s drafted. “Claude was more of a Hamlet.” Critics have also noted Christ-like qualities in the character. “It’s true,” says Rado. “Jesus was one of the icons of the hippies, you know.”

By 1967, Hair—with a title inspired by a Jim Dine artwork of the same name—was ready to be seen, but no Broadway producer would take a chance on it. Luckily, New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp was looking for a show to inaugurate his off-Broadway theater complex in the newly renovated Astor Library building on Lafayette Street.

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Hair had a six-week run at the Public, directed by Gerald Freedman, in a form that was greatly revised for the Broadway production six months later. Rado was not in the off-Broadway cast, and the show had 13 fewer songs and no nudity, which Joseph Papp nixed. Though the Public now heralds its role as the originator of Hair, Papp had no interest in continuing or transferring the show after its initial run.

Clive Barnes, the hugely influential critic of The New York Times, was an early champion of Hair and its use of pop music in a theatrical setting. The show found an angel in Michael Butler, a Chicago entrepreneur with no producing experience, who was attracted by the original poster artwork of American Indians. He mistakenly thought that Hair was about Native Americans. Butler had the notion of moving the show to the Cheetah Discotheque in midtown, where it was forced to start at 7PM so that the disco dancing could begin by 10. “We never really knew if the people who came were there to see us or to dance,” MacDermot quipped.

During the run at Cheetah, MacDermot, Rado and Ragni began expanding the score from 20 to 33 songs. Most importantly for the show’s future, avant-garde director Tom O’Horgan signed on, intrigued by the idea of, as he later put it, “perpetrating what amounted to a theatrical sit-in or demonstration in one of Broadway’s sacrosanct plaster palaces.” The Shuberts and Nederlanders declined to offer any of their “palaces,” but a recast and rescripted Hair opened at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King and less than two months before the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Clive Barnes raved, assuring Hair’s success with uptown audiences who longed to seem hip by dubbing it “the frankest show in town.”

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Nowadays, onstage nudity is no big deal, and politics and relationships of all kinds are grist for the theatrical mill. Forty years ago, however, Hair was truly ground-breaking in its treatment of sexuality including the infamous Act One nude tableau race relations, drug use and, of course, its anti-war position at the height of the Vietnam conflict.

The nude scene was not added for publicity value, Rado now insists. “It was a cry for freedom, and it reflected the reality of what was happening.” For the Broadway production, a city ordinance was found that allowed onstage nudity “as long as the actors didn't move,” he recalls. “So we said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and it became what I felt was a very spiritual moment.” Disrobing was optional—original cast member Diane Keaton never took her clothes off—but most Hair actors embraced the opportunity. “It’s a gesture that shows our trust in the people who are watching us,” London cast member Tim Curry said at the time, in a video interview included in the Hair documentary. “As an actor, I must say I find it liberating.”

A third of the original Broadway cast of Hair was African-American, and they were able to let loose in numbers such as “Colored Spade” featuring a litany of objectionable descriptive terms, including “pickaninny, jungle bunny, jigaboo” and the n-word, “I’m Black” and “White Boys.” “African-Americans in Hair were saying what was wrong with our society,” L.A. cast member Ben Vereen said in the documentary. Ironically, however, Melba Moore, who opened on Broadway as Dionne, had to push hard before being allowed to take over the bigger role of Berger’s love interest, Sheila. Original Tribe member Lorrie Davis offered a cheeky explanation for why so many black actors were cast in the show: “They needed people who could sing.”

As for drugs, while cast members were singing “Hashish” and “Walking in Space” onstage, there was plenty of mind-expansion happening behind the scenes. Asked about opening night, Rado says now, “I do have a memory, and it’s unfortunate in a certain way. We had this doctor who visited us backstage and gave us what were known as ‘vitamin shots’ in the rear end, large vials of vile stuff; I think there were amphetamines in them. We were on the stage opening night with these things coursing through our veins. I sweated a bucket of water in the first act; it was so embarrassing. But we sure had a lot of energy!”

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Hair was ruled ineligible for the 1968 Tonys due to its opening date. Producer Michael Butler sued the Broadway League but lost and received two nominations the following year, losing Best Musical to 1776. The Broadway run totaled 1,750 performances and the show became an international hit. A decade later, a Broadway revival seemed tame and not really in tune in the times; it closed after 43 performances.

Milos Forman’s 1979 film version, with a screenplay by Michael Weller, featured Treat Williams as Berger, John Savage as Claude, Beverly D’Angelo as Sheila and Annie Golden as Jeanie. The film received generally good reviews, particularly for Twyla Tharp’s choreography, but the creators disliked the numerous plot changes (Claude was from Oklahoma rather than Queens; Berger was killed at the end; the show’s antiwar message was downplayed) and the elimination of 10 songs.

As Hair approached its 40th anniversary, with yet another unpopular war dragging on, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis planned a series of concerts at the Delacorte Theatre in late September 2007, directed by Diane Paulus, who declared the show her favorite musical of all time. The outdoor, moonlit setting and a cast filled with the best young singers in town wowed the crowds, and a full production in the park followed in June 2008. Talk immediately began of a Broadway transfer.

And now, Hair is back: The show is set to open at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on March 31 with a cast that includes Will Swenson as Berger, Gavin Creel as Claude, Caissie Levy as Sheila and 22 other talented and eager young actors. Happily, MacDermot and Rado are still around to enjoy the hoopla. “The thing that makes me the most proud is that we captured a very important moment in history,” Rado says now. “We were witness to a specific, special time, and Hair grew into something wonderful to behold.”

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