Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Favorite 


Feb 24 2015


New York NY

Hair: The history of the first rock musical
by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

From its very first moment, the musical Hair was a thing of controversy. From its conception as a staged musical protest to the show's eventual appearance on the Broadway stage, Hair broke rules and records. It created the term 'rock musical' and pushed boundaries by being the first major show on Broadway to use an integrated cast or to pull up audience members to be part of the finale. Its blatant handling of sexuality and burning the American flag on stage would break Broadway rules forever. It would pave the way for future musical controversies like Jesus Christ Superstar, RENT, and Spring Awakening.

The story follows a group of friends, a 'tribal family' of flower children, hippies, dropouts, and draft dodgers, people united in protest against the war in Vietnam. The plot is loosely fit around best friends Claude and Berger (said to be autobiographical characters of authors Ragni and Rado), Sheila, and their group of friends that make up 'The Tribe.' Claude has been drafted and he debates whether it's better to fight in the Vietnam War, or to fight for the sexual revolution and the emergence of a new generation.

Hair is the brainchild of two hippie children named Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Both men met in 1964, while performing in an Off-Broadway show and began writing Hair later that year. Their goal was to write a staged musical anti-war protest. Many of the characters, plotlines, and even some songs were taken from events witnessed on a daily basis. The song 'Frank Mills' - which tells of a flower girl's meeting and loss of the man she loves - was an actual personal's ad placed in the Village Voice. The song 'Donna' - a search by a confused man looking for his Madonna - was inspired while the authors sat at a coffee house in New York's Greenwich Village. According to Rado, 'A guy dressed like a wizard walked in and asked people, 'Have you seen my Donna? She's a 16-year-old virgin.' Ragni and I looked at each other and said, 'That has to go in!' Even the now-infamous group nude scene was added into the Broadway production because the authors watched two anti-war demonstrators in Central Park strip in protest. But it wasn't until a good friend introduced the two to a Canadian composer named Galt MacDermot (winner of the 1961 Grammy Award) that the musical would begin to take shape. MacDermot would write the first score draft (including the hits 'I Got Life,' 'Where Do I Go,' and 'Hair') in less than three weeks.

After many rejections by more conservative theater producers, Joe Papp (of the New York Shakespeare Festival) took a chance on the musical. The lack of a plotline was the least of the problems when the show first took to the stage in 1967. The musical's script would be under almost constant rewrites up through - and including - the Broadway opening. The results were choppy, but the audiences responded well. Premiering at the Public Theater, Hair would eventually move to The Cheetah discothèque, with lead roles played by Gerome Ragni as Berger, Jill O'Hara as Sheila, and a girl they picked up off the street named Shelley Plimpton as Crissy.

Michael Butler, labeled as the 'hippie millionaire,' believed in the show by saying Hair is 'the strongest anti-war statement ever written,' and is credited for its move from The Cheetah to Broadway's Biltmore Theater. Tom O'Horgan, who had the reputation of directing experimental theater, said, 'I see [Hair] as a singspiel, a popular opera,' and was hired as director.

'The kids are talking their own language,' O'Horgan said. 'They're expressing their real sex attitudes and they're laying it on the line about race and miscegenation. The kids on stage are authentic, and people sense this.' It was Butler and O'Horgan who put the nude scene into the Broadway show - not to shock audiences, but to make a point. The scene caused violent reactions in several cities, and invoked threats of censorship. In response, James Rado said, 'Being naked in front of an audience, you're baring your soul - not only the soul, but the whole body was being exposed. It was very apt, very honest, and almost necessary.' Although only 20 seconds, the scene would be enough to delay the London opening until the abolishment of the Theatres Act of 1968, which until then controlled theater censorship.

Hair opened on Broadway on April 29, 1968, and ran for over 1,750 performances. The opening cast included Gerome Ragni as Berger, James Rado as Claude, Shelley Plimpton as Crissy, and Melba Moore as Dionne. Included in the Tribe were future celebrities Paul Jabara and Diane Keaton. During the original run on Broadway, the Tribe would include such notable names as Ben Vereen, Keith Carradine, Meat Loaf, and Vickie Sue Robinson, to name a few.

The original reviews were mixed. Clive Barnes (The New York Times) called it 'So new, so fresh, and so unassuming, even in its pretensions,' and Len Harris (CBS television) said, 'I've finally found the best musical of the Broadway season & is that sloppy, vulgar, terrific tribal love rock musical Hair.' Traditional composers would pan the show. Leonard Bernstein walked out of the Broadway production, comparing the music to a 'laundry list.' Richard Rodgers said it was only 'one-third music,' while John Lennon supposedly said, 'I do not know any musician who thinks it's good.'

Despite being nominated for two Tony Awards in 1968 (Best Musical and Best Direction), the show won neither. The Original Cast Album would go on to win the 1968 Grammy Award and sell almost 3 million copies. In later years, The New York Times reported, 'The cast album of Hair was & a must-have for the middle classes. & [It] became a pop-rock classic.' Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross among many others have recorded songs from Hair. In 1969, The 5th Dimension recorded 'Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,' winning Record of the Year and topping the charts. Three other songs ('Hair,' 'Good Morning Starshine,' and 'Easy to Be Hard') would reach second, third, and fourth positions, respectively on the Billboard chart. Hair would see a 2009 Broadway Revival (still running) that would redeem its place on the stage. It would be nominated for eight Tony Awards, including a win for Best Revival of a Musical.

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