NEW YORK--Oh say, can you see those headbands and fringed
vests, smell that cannabis and patchouli, hear that jangle of beads and
"Hair" is back, and Claude, Sheila and Berger and their dippy band of hippies are in full flower at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater today through June 24.
Starring Sam Harris, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Steven Weber, the Reprise! production of the 1968 seminal "tribal rock" musical will no doubt bring back nostalgic memories for baby boomers, spurred on by a score that spawned such pop hits as "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," "Easy to Be Hard" and "Good Morning, Starshine."
But the show's clarion calls of political and sexual liberation may seem a bit quaint in a peacetime America. Indeed, the twenty- and thirtysomethings who will be turning on and dropping out in this revival were not even born when "Hair" brought the youth revolution to Broadway. Has "Hair" gone limp and gray?
Not as long as George W. Bush is in the White House and John Ashcroft is attorney general, says Arthur Allan Seidelman, who is directing the production. "In the past year, there has been a resurgence of that which is oppressive and not conducive to free expression," he says. "There's a misconception that what the hippies were fighting for in the '60s was just about drugs and free sex. But it was really a rebellion against the most restrictive elements of society.
"The specifics may have changed," he continues. "There's no more Vietnam War, but the essence of what 'Hair' is about has not: true freedom, questioning authority, a fight against whatever inequality means most to you--being female, or a member of a racial or sexual orientation minority. The challenge is to activate those feelings in a cast that believes very strongly in the values of 'Hair.'"
Those values hit a nerve in the national psyche when "Hair" emerged almost serendipitously out of the New York off-Broadway theater scene in the late '60s. Not only did it ride a cultural zeitgeist whipped up by social and political events that seemed on the verge of spinning out of control, but it also brought unprecedented change to a Broadway that was then beginning to fossilize into irrelevance.
Its effects would prove to be both good and ill. But they were certainly unforeseen when two struggling New York actors, Jim Rado and Gerome Ragni, got together with composer Galt MacDermot and Tom O'Horgan to create an experimental production that few thought would last more than a few months.
The show was literally steered by the stars--surely "Hair" was the first Broadway show (and perhaps the last) to have an in-house astrologist who would not only determine the opening date of all of its productions, but also review the astrological data of the actors to see if they would fit in the tribe.
The show broke ground in other ways too. Its frontal nude scene, however brief and dimly lighted, started a trend. "Hair" was also the first show to move from off-Broadway to Broadway, from nonprofit to profit, now a well-worn path. As the first tenant of Joseph Papp's Public Theatre downtown on Lafayette Street, it transferred to a Midtown discotheque and then was remounted at the Biltmore Theatre, opening--propitiously, according to the astrologer--on April 29, 1968.
"Hair" introduced to the entertainment world such stars as Diane Keaton, Ben Vereen and Melba Moore, as well as rock 'n' roll sound on the Broadway stage. And surely, it was the first Broadway production to invite the audience onto the stage at the end to dance with the cast. And had there ever been as many dirty words uttered on the Broadway stage as in "Sodomy"?
"Hair" delighted, offended, confused and inspired millions, running for more than 1,700 performances in New York and playing in about 20 cities worldwide, including a run at Los Angeles' Aquarius Theatre, then on Sunset Boulevard east of Vine Street. According to Butler, the show grossed $80 million ($800 million in today's dollars) globally before the last love bead was put away.
There has been talk of taking those beads out of storage for a full Broadway revival and national tour. This comes on the heels of the acclaimed East Coast Encores! concert production earlier this year, along with the upcoming Reprise! production.
It'll have to be without Ragni, who died of cancer in 1991. Several other original cast members are also gone. But some survivors recall that fabulous far-out time when the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.
James Rado, book writer and lyricist for "Hair": Gerry (Ragni) and I were both actors, trying to work on our craft in New York and studying; he was at the Open Theatre and I was with Lee Strasberg. I've always tried to remember the exact moment we decided to do "Hair," but I can't. I think it was just the fact that Gerry was also a poet and I was writing, too, and one day I read some of his poetry. One of his poems was "Ain't Got No," which later became a song in "Hair," and I'd written "Where Do I Go?"
We realized those two songs fit nicely into what we were
writing and what we'd come to write. We had this idea of bringing the intense
theatricality and life that we saw on the streets in New York into the theater. There was all this potential drama going on out there, and Gerry and I wanted to capture that.
Rado: The basic story 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 and we incorporated that in the show too.
Michael Butler, producer: People say that "Hair" doesn't have a story. It has a big story. I love the music but the real thing I'm for is the book. It's "Huckleberry Finn."
Rado: There was a lot about hippies in the press and the media, but we always thought these glimpses were surface, they never went into any depth and they were not really affectionate toward the movement.
Making the Music
Rado: We were singing our lyrics to our own melodies at first. But when we brought the show to Nat Shapiro to produce, he said, "Where's the music?" and then he put us together with Galt MacDermot. We gave him the script and he came back with a handful of songs, including the title song, "Hair."
Galt MacDermot, "Hair" composer: I was married, had two kids and was making a living as a piano player and not doing that great when I met Gerry and Jim. I found the show and the lyrics very funny, fresh, timely and original, unlike anything I'd ever read before.
Most lyrics you're embarrassed to sing, but these were
very poetic--things you'd say in real life. I was never part of the counterculture;
I was only interested in music and I never even knew any hippies until
I met Gerry and Jim. They said they had an offer from Joe Papp,
so I went home and wrote some songs in a couple of weeks--"Ain't Got No," "I Got Life," maybe, and another, "Reading and Writing," that never made it into the show.
Rado: We didn't want to preach to the converted; we wanted to bring it to people who weren't able to see what was happening in the East Village and in Central Park.
MacDermot: The show wrote very, very easily because the lyrics instantly gave me tunes. And even ones that aren't well-written, that don't scan, like "Frank Mills" and "We Look at One Another" have so much emotion because it was a very emotional time. "Don't Put It Down" was truly patriotic and sincere, and yet it makes a complete mockery of patriotism.
The other songs, "Don't Put It Down," "Sodomy," "Colored Spade" and "Manchester, England," came later; the idea of them was to introduce the personalities of the characters. Like "Sodomy." I wasn't shocked by the words. Woof (who sings it) is obsessed with sex and religion, so it seemed quite right and very amusing. Besides, I'm from Canada, a small and unimportant country where you can say and do anything and nobody notices. I was just very naive about New York theater.
Rado: We had an agent who was trying to sell it to Broadway producers, but we kept getting rejections right and left. Then Joe Papp called and said he wanted to produce it at his new theater on Lafayette Street. Gerald Freedman was the artistic director for Joe Papp, and that's how he ended up directing the first production.
Butler: I saw "Hair" at its very first performance at the Public Theatre (Oct. 29, 1967). I was in town from Chicago and saw an ad in the New York Times, "tribal rock musical," so I thought it was a show about American Indians. I loved the show--it was so new and fresh and exciting.
Rado: I think Joe liked it but he never envisioned the potential. Besides, there was no history of a show going from off-Broadway to Broadway at the time. But we were determined. And then we met Michael Butler, this guy from Chicago who wanted to move it immediately to Broadway. He bought the rights from Joe Papp for $50,000. We told him that we wanted a whole new production, we wanted something grander, and we wanted Tom O'Horgan, who we knew from off-Broadway, to direct it. Meanwhile Michael moved it to the Cheetah, a nightclub in Midtown where it played a month. But it was really destined to go to Broadway.
MacDermot: The boys didn't want a slick Broadway production and so the casting was crucial. We were looking for people who could sing--but not with that Broadway sound, which I never liked anyway.
The boys spent hours wandering the streets searching for people who had the right look. They'd go up to them and ask them to audition. They found Shelley Plimpton and Sally Eaton that way, to name a few.
I didn't trust anybody to be musical director. The style of the music was so different that even the rehearsal pianist wasn't right for the show. So I acted as a cop for the first half year and then Michael asked me to be the musical director on Broadway.
Tom O'Horgan, director: With the exception of one or two people, the cast at the Public was completely wrong--too shined up and too clean. We were walking the streets, looking for people who looked right and asking them to audition. Diane Keaton, for instance, she was one those people we found, and she was a really great Sheila. Shelley Plimpton was working as a coat check. We found Melba Moore through the record industry. It was a wonderful experiment.
Robert I. Rubinsky, member of the original Broadway cast: I think everyone was very carefully picked, not only for the horoscope, but they wanted to have like a mini-society view. After the original cast, the show was never the same. It was like doing the Mouseketeers, and it was like having Sheila Kaplowitz be Annette rather than Annette Funicello.
Mary Lorrie Davis, original Broadway cast member and author of "Letting Down My Hair": I came to the audition, straight as an arrow, high heels, stockings, nice little outfit. And I looked out and saw these three guys, Michael Butler, Jim and Gerry, and they looked like bums to me. I thought to myself, "These guys can't do anything for you."
But I gave my music to the pianist, who looked as straight as I did, and at first he played it wrong, and then he got it right and at the end I said to him, "You don't play rock 'n' roll music that bad for a white guy." That turned out to be Galt MacDermot.
O'Horgan: I wanted both Gerry and Jim in the show: Gerry as Berger, Jim as Claude. The play allowed for a certain amount of improvisation, and I loved that. But sometimes the actors got carried away and I'd watch from the back of the theater. Word would get around, and suddenly the show would go back into its original shape.
The Great White Way
Robin Wagner, set designer: I was working for Oliver Smith on "Hello, Dolly!" and he introduced me to Tom O'Horgan, upstairs above a sex club. O'Horgan sort of said, "We're going to do this thing, babe, and I don't know what we really need, come to rehearsals." I started going to rehearsals--no contract, no nothing. The auditions were so free and filled with mayhem, and I started suggesting temporary solutions, and let's get some scaffolding and see how high we can go. The cast would bring stuff they'd found on the street.
O'Horgan: Broadway gave you the feeling of suffocation in those days. But we were doing some really crazy, experimental things in small spaces and studios downtown with people like Sam Shepard, Rochelle Owens and Lanford Wilson. In that group was Gerome Ragni and Jim Rado, and they said, "We have this show at Joe Papp's that we want you to do. We want to take it to Broadway." And I said, "Oh sure." I never believed for one second it would ever get to Broadway.
Butler: "Hair" cost $250,000 to put on Broadway. I raised the money from polo players, friends of mine and from my father, who put in $100,000. Just before we opened, he came to see the show and he said, "No way." I took over his interest.
O'Horgan: We were supposed to be in this other Broadway theater at first, but the owner came to a rehearsal and said, "Oh no, we can't have that kind of crap in our theater." And it went out of business shortly after that, became a porno house.
Wagner: I think there were 17 in the cast, and some nights the show went on with only 11. One actor was bouncing back and forth playing two characters: He had a line, then he'd run across the stage and give the answer, then he'd run back and give another line and then run back and forth through the whole scene. Other times people would just wander on the stage, and there were more people onstage than there was supposed to be. It was just total madness and excitement.
O'Horgan: I thought "Hair" would last a week and that would be it. But I remember Robert Downey Sr., the actor's father, came to a preview and told me, "You have no idea what you have here."
Baring It All
Butler: What really sold "Hair" in the beginning was the nude scene. On opening night, one of the lawyers for the show had $10,000 in cash, in case the show was busted and we had to post bond. That later happened in Boston. But even if people went to see the nude scene, they then became very involved in the story; there were tears by the second act.
O'Horgan: There was no nude scene at the Public. Gerry and Jim said that they wanted a nude scene (on Broadway) and there'd been one in every one of my productions--but that was off-Broadway. So I said OK.
Davis: People did the nude scene because they wanted to, but then not enough people were doing the nude scene, so the producers said we'd be paid extra if we did it: $1.50! I wasn't going to rip my clothes off for $1.50. But I have to admit if there was somebody in the audience who looked interesting, who looked fine, then that's when people did it.
O'Horgan: Some of the cast said, "No way." And so I said,
OK, whoever wants to take their clothes off can, and those who don't, don't
have to. It was not sexual or naughty but part of the liberation thing.
The Drugs and Sex
Davis: I was sort of like the mother of the group. There was a lot of drugs going on, and I told them, "Don't do it in front of me, because if the police come, I'm telling." That was because I knew that if trouble did come, it was the black people in the cast who'd get it the worst. As an African American from the Lower East Side, I knew there was no such thing as equality.
O'Horgan: As far as dope and stuff, there was never much evidence of that at the beginning. But it got a little more intense as things went along.
Rubinsky: It was sexually revolutionary in every way. It was very free love-ish. The gay message was much heavier--sexual liberation and sexual freedom and identity freedom.
Behind the Scenes
Butler: One of the secrets about that original production was by the time we opened on Broadway, the tribe had been together for six months. That was absolutely critical. That's why the 1978 production didn't work. It was a very spiritual experience. I don't know anybody involved with the show whose life wasn't changed by "Hair."
Davis: A lot of us cast members wrote our parts in the show: I wrote the Abraham Lincoln bit; Paul Jabara played Gen. Grant and he wrote a lot of that. But we never even got so much as a thank you.
Wagner: There was this long step, and these kids used to come and sit on it. It was in front of the theater. They'd come with their backpacks, sit there until the show ended and then the party would start. The ushers would leave the doors open so they could hear the music; they didn't have the money to buy a ticket. The guy next door in the parking lot, he had sleeping bag space, (so) you could participate in "Hair" and never see it. It was one big party.
Davis: When I did the book on "Hair," I interviewed the doorman, the electricians, everybody said Diane (Keaton) was the best Sheila they'd ever seen. Paul Jabara and Jonathan Kramer, just great and talented people. Gerry Ragni, onstage nobody could touch him, he was that kind of performer.
Butler: I was basically a very ruthless hawk, interested in my business and political maneuverings, and "Hair" turned my philosophy around. I was on Nixon's enemies list--twice--one of my honors.
Davis: I was in the show for 25 months, and the dream was alive for a good part of it. But finally I realized, it was all about money, not about us.
Rado: When they said this was a love movement, it really was. It was all about friendliness and acceptance and embracing everything and everyone, and that wasn't being included in the media.
Davis: I had a lot of white friends in the cast. Lynn Kellogg, who created Sheila, was just sensational. And Diane Keaton was like she still is now, very, very sensitive. Everybody liked her.
Rubinsky: I think I was the only Jew. I had my own little society.
Wagner: Gerry Ragni was the real spirit of the show. Jim was like very straightforward, he was steady, and Galt was as traditional as you can get--he was still wearing three-piece suits, never let his hair grow out, which was kind of fun. And he turned out to be the hippest of all.
Butler: O'Horgan's (Broadway) production was looser, not as structured as it had been before, there was more input from the cast, more of a hippie message. I believed in that message of love and peace and freedom.
Davis: Tom O'Horgan made that show work; he's brilliant. We were made to feel very close to each other. We used to hang out together. Some people were sleeping together.
O'Horgan: I don't know of a show as complicated as this that didn't have problems and arguments, but there was this incredible love among the cast as well, and it had something to do with the sweetness of the piece itself.
Davis: Things started to fall apart when, about three or four months into the show, one of the cast members, Lamont Washington, a beautiful, gorgeous, talented black man, accidentally burned to death. Some of us wanted to go to the funeral and they wouldn't let us go. Here was this show, all about love and liberation, freedom and equality, and you can't go to a guy's funeral and he's one of the leads?
I'd never missed a show, never a rehearsal, and I said, "Screw this, I'm going." And everybody else came too. And so they held up the matinee that day for a couple of hours until we got back, and they said, "We want you to do the show." And people were upset and crying and in no mood to go on.
I said, "I'm not kissing anybody's ass to do the show." So the white kids in the cast went on and did the black parts. Three white guys did the Supremes and another white kid did Hud. Drugs were bad enough, but this was disrespecting the show. For months after that, blacks were on one side of the stage and whites on the other side.
The camaraderie on the stage was what made the show work. After Lamont died, you could cut the tension with a knife. It was never the same after that. You forgive, but you never forget.
Wagner: The stage hands were very uptight. When we started loading in, one guy dropped a sandbag on me because I looked like a hippie. This same guy--very redneck--started living with a black girl in the show, and he grew his hair and started living like a hippie. The juxtaposition of these two different lifestyles--very straight and uptight.
Rubinsky: The cast mirrored the world. At the same time, there was a divide between the gay men and the straight men. I don't think there was much homophobia. Some of the gay guys were very flamboyant and queeny, and some guys were a little affronted by it. A lot of people are still that way--there's still that separation.
Davis: You could see a different show every night. From the producer on down, the philosophy was, rules are made to be broken.
Wagner: "Hair" broke down all the walls, the actors would climb around the balconies and run out of the theater, and crawl around the audience and throw popcorn.
Jim McLaughlin, CBS TV news producer: I went to see "Hair" in the fall of 1968 with three friends from college. We'd been listening to the album all during the summer, so I got four balcony seats and we drove down. I'd always been interested in musical theater. I'd seen "Funny Girl" on Broadway, and listened to cast albums like "My Fair Lady," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Bells Are Ringing." But "Hair" was the most exciting musical I'd ever heard because it touched a nerve. It was fresh and brash and really in your face. It dealt with sexual freedom, civil rights, communal living and political idealism. Change was in the wind. It really reflected that.
Rubinsky: Andy Warhol was there a lot, Salvador Dali and Janis Joplin. She handed me this thing during the show, and I started sniffing it, and it was Southern Comfort.
Wagner: In previews, and even during the run, a lot of people were just disgusted by it; they'd leave. There was an underground kind of wave of people coming to see it, almost like a cult thing.
O'Horgan: There were people, of course, who hated the show--the politics of it were pretty well out there. I remember on opening night, Michael brought this very well-dressed, very senior group of people who just sat there like stone statues, mouths opened. But I think they enjoyed it.
McLaughlin: By the time I actually saw it on Broadway, it was disappointing. It seemed out of place in a Broadway theater--it was way too safe, too sane, too cleaned up. The audience was pretty tame, more of a typical theater crowd, white and middle-class.
O'Horgan: In the London production, which happened shortly after New York, sometimes people in the audience would take their clothes off too and that was where people first spontaneously started to come up on stage at the end to dance with the cast.
MacDermot: "Hair" was a very nice theatrical experience. Nobody had ever written for Broadway with such a strong sense of the times, and probably haven't since. Maybe ("Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk"). But one thing people forget is that it was a lot of very hard work.
MacDermot: We recorded the original cast album, and this
guy from RCA called and said, "This record is selling like hell." And then
all these artists started covering the songs: Nina Simone did "Ain't Got
No" and "I've Got Life," which was a semi-hit, though it was huge in Europe,
where they made commercials out of it. The 5th Dimension then recorded
"Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" and the
show really started packing them in--until then it had been a theater audience. Then Oliver did "Good Morning, Starshine," and Three Dog Night, "Easy to Be Hard," and Quincy Jones, "Walking in Space." And the Cowsills did "Hair." And Barbra Streisand even sang "Frank Mills," but it didn't make any sense. She did it like a baby. Very ill-advised.
McLaughlin: The songs still hold up because they are about things that last, the sheer excitement of exploring the possibilities of a better world.
Davis: If you're working for David Merrick, you understand
business is business. But this was different. There was little separation
between your real life at home and your life at the theater. It was like
one big party.
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