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#OnGayThisDay: “Hair” Opens on Broadway 50 Years Ago

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April 30, 1968– Hair opens on Broadway

It all started in October 1967, a time of tremendous social and cultural upheaval in the USA. But, not so much in the theatre world. The biggest hit on Broadway was the musical Mame with Angela Lansbury. Judy Garland‘s At Home At The Palace had just closed after a month of performances, and the divine Marlene Dietrich was performing her one-woman show at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Clive Barnes, the NY Times theatre critic, wrote a review of a new Off-Broadway musical:

“You probably don;t have to be a supporter of Eugene McCarthy to love it, but I wouldn’t give it much chance among the adherents of Governor Ronald Reagan.”

The show was titled Hair: The Tribal Love-Rock Musical and it had an infectious Rock infused score that introduced that era-defining song, Aquarius. It also provided theatergoers to a full-frontal preview of the late 1960s counterculture.

Hair opened on October 17, 1967 in the East Village, the very first production of Joseph Papp‘s new Public Theater. It received mixed reviews, but audiences found it to be groovy. Hair proved to be a big enough hit during its initial six-week run at the Public that Papp could find financial backing for a proposed move to Broadway. While this kind of move is now common, it was exceedingly rare for a musical in that era, and it was an especially bold move for a musical with a nontraditional score. Yet, it wasn’t just the music that was way out there, the show had odes to sex and drugs, and it featured a much-talked-about Act One finale where the cast appeared completely naked on the dimly lit stage.

All these shocking breaks from the traditions of the Broadway musical didn’t prove to be a turn-off for audiences. Hair a smash-hit show that ran for four years and became a cultural phenomenon with a three million-selling Original Cast Recording and a Number One song on the pop charts.

When Hair was revived on Broadway in 2009, Charles Isherwood, of the NY Times, wrote:

“For darker, knottier and more richly textured sonic experiences of the times, you turn to The Doors or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. Or all of them. For an escapist dose of the sweet sound of youth brimming with hope that the world is going to change tomorrow, you listen to Hair and let the sunshine in.”

Hair was conceived by two gay actors who were lovers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. They wrote the book and lyrics and also played the lead roles. Their characters were autobiographical, with Rado’s Claude being a shy romantic and Ragni’s Berger being bold and bodacious.

Rado wrote that the inspiration for Hair was:

“…a combination of some characters we met in the streets, people we knew and our own imaginations. We knew this group of kids in the East Village who were dropping out and dodging the draft, and there were also lots of articles in the press about how kids were being kicked out of school for growing their hair long There was so much excitement in the streets and the parks and the hippie areas, and we thought if we could transmit this excitement to the stage it would be wonderful…. We hung out with them and went to their Be-Ins and let our hair grow.”

Many of the cast were recruited right off the street. Rado:

“It was very important historically, and if we hadn’t written it, there’d not be any examples. You could read about it and see film clips, but you’d never experience it. We thought, ‘This is happening in the streets’,’ and we wanted to bring it to the stage.”

They pitched the show to many producers and received many rejections. Eventually Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, decided on Hair to open the new Public Theater. Hair was Papp’s first non-Shakespeare production. Rehearsals were rough and the show itself was incomprehensible to many on the theater’s staff.

Hair wasn’t just revolutionary because of the Rock score, drugs, sex, and nudity. The Playbill used the term “Tribe” instead of “Cast”. It also featured the rare fully racially integrated company. One-third of the cast were African-Americans. Except in some satirical scenes, the black characters were portrayed as equal to the whites. Ebony Magazine declared the show as the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of the American Theatre.

Songs and scenes took on racial issues. Colored Spade, which introduces the character Hud, a militant black male, is simply a list of racial slurs like “jungle bunny, little black sambo” climaxing with the declaration that Hud is the “President of the United States of Love”. Dead End, sung by the black tribe members, is a list of street signs that symbolize black frustration and alienation. One of the tribe’s protest chants is “What do we think is really great? To bomb, lynch and segregate?!”.  The terrifically tuneful Black Boys/White Boys is an exuberant acknowledgement of the U.S. Supreme Court having struck down laws forbidding miscegenation in 1967. Another of the tribe’s protest chants is “Black, white, yellow, red. Copulate in a king-sized bed”.

Hair also references Native Americans, including the use of the term “Tribe”, plus Pacifism, Environmentalism, Consumerism, and Spirituality.

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 wrote:

“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 they were amphetamines. 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!”

The controversial, notorious nude scene was not gratuitous. Nudity was a big part of the Hippie culture, a rejection of sexual repression and a statement about naturalism, honesty, openness, and freedom. Rado:

“It was a cry for freedom, and it reflected the reality of what was happening.”

A NYC ordinance was allowed onstage nudity as long as the actors didn’t move. Being naked was optional original cast member Diane Keaton never took her clothes off, but most of the Hair tribe embraced the opportunity. Tim Curry, in the original London cast, said:

“It’s a gesture that shows our trust in the people who are watching us. As an actor, I must say I find it liberating.”

Hair glorifies sexual freedom. In the song Sodomy, the character Woof beseeches everyone to: “Join the holy orgy Kama Sutra, Everyone!”. Woof admits to a crush on Mick Jagger, and a three-way embrace between the three main characters of Claude, Berger and Sheila turns into a Claude–Berger lingering kiss.

Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 30, 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and less than two months before the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Clive Barnes of the NY Times gave Hair a rave review, dubbing it: “the frankest show in town”.

Touring companies of Hair were met with protests, bomb threats and court orders to have productions closed down. When the Boston company of Hair was arrested, their case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered that the show be allowed to reopen. Times have changed; now Hair is a favorite choice for high schools and community theatres. Hair has been performed in almost every country of the world. The many productions of Hair continue to bring in a million dollars every month, with much of the royalties going to The Public Theatre.

Original Broadway Cast, 1968, Sony Music via YouTube

Royalties from the 300 different recordings of the show’s songs make it the most successful score in history and the most performed score ever. Songs from Hair have been recorded by Frank SinatraShirley BasseyBarbra StreisandDiana RossSarah BrightmanPetula ClarkLiza MinnelliThe Lemonheads, and Sérgio Mendes.

The 5th Dimension released Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In in 1969, winning the Grammy Award for Record Of The Year and topping the charts for six weeks. The Cowsills‘ recording of the title song Hair went to Number Two on the Billboard Charts while folk singer Oliver‘s version of Good Morning Starshine reached Number Three; Three Dog Night had a version of Easy to Be Hard that went to Number Four. Nina Simone‘s medley of Ain’t Got No / I Got Life was Number Five on the Pop and Jazz Charts in 1968.  Aquarius was the more frequently played song on U.S. radio and television for two years.

The Hair tribe alumni includes: Meat LoafJennifer WarnesBert SommerDonna SummerMelba MooreElaine PaigeTim CurryShelley PlimptonPaul JabaraBen VereenKeith CarradineHeather MacRaeVicki Sue RobinsonJoe MantegnaAndré DeShieldsJonathan GroffGavin Creel, Annaleigh Ashford, and John Barrowman.

The 1979 film version is one of my favorite films of all time. It was directed by the late, great Miloš Forman and the film’s tribe includes Treat WilliamsJohn SavageBeverly D’AngeloAnnie Golden, Nell Carter, and Charlotte Rae. The amazing choreography is by Twyla Tharp.

My favorite bit of Hair trivia is that it lost the Tony Award in 1969 to the musical 1776.

Harmony and understanding

Sympathy and trust abounding

No more falsehoods or derisions

Golden living dreams of visions

Mystic crystal revelation

And the mind’s true liberation

Aquarius

Aquarius


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