The New Complete Book of the American Musical Theatre
by David Ewen
circa 1970

The rock-'n'-roll era of the late 1950's brought us a highly successful musical in Bye Bye Birdie.  The psychedelic years of the late 1960's had a musical stage production in Hair.  The authors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, have revealed that for two years they had been putting down random ideas for a musical about the chaotic world around them, the people they knew and loved, and the people and things they hated and rebelled against, and the various other vagaries and indiscretions of the younger generation in the Vietnam War years.  Whenever the authors thought of something appropriate, they jotted it down on scraps of paper.  After two years these scraps must have accumulated into quite a mass.  One suspects that the authors then threw all the slips of paper high in the air, let them fall pell-mell, and then proceed to write their text by picking up the pieces of paper at random and following the chain of thought in the same sequence in which those papers were so haphazardly picked up (very much in the way that some aleatory composers write their music.)

That's the kind of musical Hair is.  In its outspoken revolt, it is even rebelled against the musical theater.  It has no plot to speak of, no logical sequence of events, no train of thought, no recognizable format, no creative discipline, no shape or design.  It's an explosion.  Things are allowed to happen, however much some of these doings are unconventional or outright shocking.  The dialogue is thick with profanity, and so are some of the song lyrics.  The hippies, the love children, protest against the war, racism, the draft, patriotism, morality, cleanliness, and most of all against middle-class values - all this and more are to be found in this highly unconventional musical.  As one of the characters, Jeanie, remarks as, looking through her glasses, she inspects the audience: "What's going on in all those little Daily News heads?"

The characters wear the recognizable uniform of their clan; and in one scene they wear nothing at all.  They run all over the stage, roll over one another, explode out into the audience, and run amok up and down the aisles.  They speak in favor of smoking pot, making love indiscriminately, sex perversion - freedom of thought and action.  They promote demonstrations, and carry placards, some of which descend to the absurd, as the one that commands in large letters: "See Ethel Merman in Hair."  And they sing all kinds of songs in many different styles and idioms, some with a strong rock beat, some primitive and formless (words in kind), some with a swinging and lusty emotion, and some (surprisingly enough) with a good deal of tender feeling to them.  The most popular of the strong rhymed numbers is "Aquarius."  The best of the ballads is "frank Mills," which Crissy (Shelley Plimpton) sings about her hot-rod lover. Another is "Good morning Starshine."  The closing number, "Let the Sun Shine In" (or "The Flesh Failures") became a hit song.

There are two versions of Hair (both of which were recorded).  The first became the initial production of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater and was given Off Broadway at the Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater on OCtober 29, 1967.  It stayed there eight weeks.  From there it moved uptown to the former discotheque Cheetah.  Then it went through an extensive period of rewriting.  Most of the plot was deleted from the original production, a great many songs were added, together with new irrelevant sequences and production novelties.  What emerged was an almost entirely new stage adventure.  The much-publicized nudity sequence, for example, was one of the new ideas that was born when Hair was being thus thoroughly revised.  At last, the production moved into the Biltmore Theatre to create dismay in some, shock in others, confusion in still others and  - most surprising of all - a good deal of honest praise from some of the most reputable critics.  The conservative Clive Barnes of the New York Times thought it "masterly," "new," "subtle," adding that it was "the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than that of the day before yesterday."

Actually, while it would be euphemistic to call the goings-on a plot - just as it would be a misnomer to call the free-wheeling stage antics choreography - there is some sort of a basic theme running through the production.  The musical opens with "Aquarius" (hauntingly introduced musically by electronic sounds), in which Ron (Ronald Dyson) suggests that mankind is progressing into an age when peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.  From then on, the musical goes on to condemn everything that is wrong with the Establishment and to praise everything that is right with the hippies and the love children.  Claude (James Rado), a long-haired hippie, leaves his Flatbush home, pretends he is from Manchester, England, and proceeds to establish a menage a trois at the apartment of his friend Berger (Gerome Ragni) and Berger's girl, Sheila (Lynn Kellogg).  Claude is about to be drafted into the Army, much to the despair of Jeanie (Sally Eaton) - though she is pregnant with somebody else's child - and their hippie friends.  As for Claude, his main ambition before going into uniform is to seduce the girl who seems to find more pleasure in painting protest posters than in sex.  When Claude is eventually drafted, his hippie friends mourn the death of his spirit.

Shock treatment is introduced in the famous "Be-In" scene that comes at the end of the first act, which concludes with cast members appearing totally nude.  There is much more within the rest of the show to make the Establishment uncomfortable.  There is Woof's song "Sodomy," which talks about various unsavory sexual practices, and wonders why words identifying them should sound so nasty.  There is "I Got Life" where Claude glorifies his body, and the ensemble glorifies theirs.  There is "White Boys" (a wonderful spoof of the Supremes), in which a trio of girls wearing a single size-60 gown speak of the reaction of the Establishment to interracial sex practices.  There is "Colored Spade", where Hud (Lamont Washington) calls the Negro every conceivable name he can think of.  More appealing,  however - and very much in the tender spirit of "Frank Mills" (whose lyrics, incidentally, are in prose) - is a number poignantly sung by Sheila, a girl who has a good deal of trouble adjusting herself to her environment: "Easy To Be Hard."

While enjoying its long run on Broadway, Hair was represented by different companies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.  The sensation and triumph enjoyed by all these productions were matched by what happened in Toronto, and particularly in Europe.  performed in London and Paris, hair was given with so many interpolations of local humor and comments of London or Parisian interest that in each instance it became quite a different show from what it was in America.  In PAris, Hair became the first French-language version of an American musical to become box-office sellout (and at an unprecedented top price of ten dollars, instead of the more usual one for paris of six dollars) since Rose-Marie, years ago.  (The only other two American musicals to have been highly successful in paris had both been played in English - West Side Story and Porgy and Bess.)  "This French-accented Hair...not only shows the vitality of the show in the first place," reported Clive Barnes from Paris, "but also emerges as a perfect original in its own right."  Hair was also mounted in Amsterdam, Lisbon, Tokyo, and other foreign capitals.  When Hair was mounted in Acapulco, the authorities forced it to close down after the opening night, and the cast had to leave town the following day.  Censors closed down the show in Boston pending legal action.

Hair celebrated its second anniversary in the Mall of Central Park in New York on April 26, 1970 before an audience of about ten thousand.  All the hit numbers of the show were performed, with the huge crowd joining the cast in a rousing rendition of "Let The Sun Shine In."  By April of 1970, the show had brought it's backers a profit of well over two million dollars, the gross in New York alone having been about seven million dollars.

Copyright David Ewen.  All rights reserved.

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