Hair - Topless, and No Bottoms, Either
by Marilyn Bender
The New York Times - April 28, 1968

Monique Van Vooren, the Belgian actress, international sex symbol, and theatrical investor, has declared her intention of wearing her new, transparent chiffon blouse by Yves Saint Laurent to the broadway opening of Hair tomorrow evening. If Miss Van Vooren follows through there will be nothing (such as a bra or a body stocking) standing between her and any other first nighters who happen to be looking at her.

However, if attention is what Miss van Vooren hopes to attract, she's bound to be disappointed. Vogue and Rudi Gernreich, the California designer of monokini fame, have already endorsed the nipple as a high fashion accessory. And after the exposure by actresses in movies and Off Broadway plays of the 1960's, what's to shock in the sight of a bare female breast?

Besides, as tomorrow's audience already knows from previewers' word of mouth and skillfully planted gossip-column items, the first act of the rock musical ends with several healthy young men facing front and center in the alltogether. Just how many stark naked males there are and whether the girl hippies are equally unclothed has been the subject of urgent dispute among those who have been attending previews of Hair during the last three weeks.

If the audience is as confused as eyewitnesses to a street-corner murder, it's for good cause. The finale is played in near-darkness with much of the cast writhing under a flower printed blanket before presenting themselves upright. Meanwhile, one of the plays two antiheroes, Claude, belts out one of the protest musicals most significant messages, "Where Do I Go?"

Claude is played by James Rado, 28, one of the co-authors and co-lyricists of Hair. His mother and father (an understandably nervous federal government employee) came to one of the previews. They'd heard about the nude scene, but when it arrived they failed to notice. "They were so busy watching their son singing in the spotlight," young Rado said indulgently. In the scene he wears a George-Washington-crossing-the-Delaware kind of cloak decorated with portions of the American flag, a fact that escaped at least one middle-aged viewer whose eyes were riveted elsewhere.

Hair started out last October as the first offering of Joseph Papp's Public Theater in the restored Astor library down on Lafyette Street. Mr. Papp, the uncrushable producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, hoped to draw a young audience to his theater with experimental works and $2.50 tickets. The musical was favorably received as an honest if somewhat gangling presentation of the decade's alienated youth, with their drugs, unkempt hairdos, anti-Vietnam and anti-bourgeois sentiments and their liberated attitudes toward sex and color.

If Mr. Papp's mostly middle-aged audiences (as they turned out to be) were jolted, it was by the kid's squalid living conditions and their use of certain four-letter words, particularly one that the Village Voice journalists use as often and as casually as fashion copywriters employ "marvelous". But there wasn't any skin, to speak of, showing.

Last December, Hair moved uptown to Cheetah, a psychedelic, soft drink, rock dance palace with theater attached. Michael Butler, scion of a Chicago tribe of millionaires involved with paper, aviation and real estate, had signed on as co-producer. Then Mr. Butler decided that with luck and a quarter of a million dollars he could propel Hair onto Broadway. Bertrand Castelli signed up as executive producer, Gerald Freeman, the original director, was superseded by Tom O'Horgan, ringmaster of the Off Off Broadway, experimental Cafe La Mama productions. "We had wanted Tom to do it downtown, but he had to go to Europe." said Gerome Ragni, the co-author who plays hair's other antihero, Berger. Unlike Mr. Rado, who resorts to a blonde wig and false mustache, Mr. Ragni can call his Neanderthal mop of curly, reddish hair his own. "Tom's the only director who could really do it. He let's us free, which is beautiful." Mr. Ragni added.

With O'Horgan and Castelli, the emancipated writer-actors and their composer, Galt MacDermot, have made Hair Yippier, more trenchantly topical about race, politics, and war. And, of course, more explicitly physical and profane. The tourist lady who was played downtown as a suburban den mother has become a female impersonator. The four-letter word is louder and clearer along with six and seven-letter words and a few 1968 double entendres that may pass right over the heads of the 1948 generation unless they bone up before the performance  with a short course in Village graffiti. And then there are those fleeting nudists in the first act finale. "Opening night, wow!" Mr. Rado prophesied. "There'll be no clothes at all."

"Anyone who feels like it can take his clothes off. Everybody wants to now, even the stagehands. We turned them on." Mr. Ragni asserted. During the previews the number of nudes has varied from performance to performance, not just because of revisions of text and direction but because of the time it takes to loosen actors inhibitions.

"You have to get rid of a couple of hang ups. I didn't do it the first couple of nights, but then I realized how groovy it could be." said Shelley Plimpton, a 21-year old brunette who looks like a 12-year old Alice in Wonderland. her back is to the audience anyway.

"I'd love to [take my clothes off] but I haven't been asked to." said Sally Eaton, 21, who plays a pregnant flower child. "I suppose it might be a little too much National Geographic."

But is it really necessary? Or is it just a gimmick to drag in the Broadway bourgeoisie so they can be epateed? "We wanted the naked bit in from the beginning." Mr. Rado explained. "It was taken from the first Be-In, a year ago in central Park. Two guys took off their clothes - it was sensational at the time - and the cops closed in."

The first act closes with two cops surging down the aisle of the theater, but since the entire play and it's cast move freely on and off the stage, the audience isn't sure whether the police are for real until the house lights go up. The cops are actors, but the producer of Hair is not worried about being heckled by the forces of law and order. The New York City police do not inspect a show unless someone files a complaint of obscenity. Nude bodies alone will not stir them to action. Something overtly obscene must transpire on the stage.

Maybe it will next season. The current of sexual frankness in the theater has been moving at a swiftening tempo from Europe to America, from Off Off Broadway to Off Broadway, to Broadway, the last stronghold of middle-class squeamishness.

Nothing is attempted on the stage that hasn't already been tried in films, such as a glimpse of pubic hair (Blow-Up), a woman's innermost sexual recollections (Ulysses), an abortion (Alfie), and the erotic perversions of a brothel's clientele (Belle du Jour). Off broadway, and aging wench goes bare breasted in Scuba Duba this season while two robots have an assignation in a motel in America Hurrah.

On Broadway Marat emerged naked from his bath and walked with his back to the audience in Marat/Sade. That was in the fall of 1965, when the burning question was does he, or doesn't he wear something in front? A year ago, You Know I Can't Hear You When The Water's Running opened with a titillating discussion between two characters about whether a third would dare walk onstage in the buff. The play is still running and although the character says he's willing, he doesn't.

Now that frontier has been crossed. Hair is a "series of observations about the whole young generation." Mr. Ragni said. "The nudity is not done for shock, it's not done vulgarly or out of an ugly moment. It's a beautiful comment about the young generation."

"It shows how helpless man is, how vulnerable." Mr. Castelli added earnestly.

Copyright The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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