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Acid trips, nu­dity, back­stage astrologers! On its 50th an­niver­sary, we re­visit the ori­gins of the ground­break­ing hippy mu­si­cal

Acid trips! Full-frontal nu­dity! A back­stage astrologer! As Hair cel­e­brates its 50th an­niver­sary, Peter Watts ex­plores the hippy mu­si­cal’s ori­gins in New York’s late-’60s un­der­ground en­claves, where he dis­cov­ers er­rant street per­form­ers, anti-war demos and rad­i­cal sex­ual pol­i­tics. “We were try­ing to cre­ate a new world,” one sur­vivor re­veals. “Free­dom, love, peace, joy – and a lot of crazi­ness.”

As a cou­ple of strug­gling young ac­tors strolling through New York’s Lower East side dur­ing the late ’60s, Jim Rado and Gerome Ragni saw plenty that in­spired them. For a long time, the neigh­bour­hood had been home to the city’s avant-garde – Beat poets, un­der­ground film­mak­ers, Pop artists and po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tors all lived in these scruffy streets, pur­su­ing al­ter­na­tive ways of liv­ing at Ed san­ders’ Peace Eye book­store, the Elec­tric Cir­cus night­club or with the ex­per­i­men­tal Liv­ing The­ater group. But by 1967 it had be­come the do­main of a new breed of colour­ful in­ter­loper; the hip­pies. “We first saw them at st Mark’s Place; it was like they landed from an­other planet,” ex­plains Rado. “I wasn’t aware about what was hap­pen­ing in san Fran­cisco, but in New York it sud­denly hap­pened be­fore our eyes. I thought this was some­thing im­por­tant for peo­ple to know about. It was thrilling see­ing these peo­ple clus­tered to­gether on the streets or in the parks, and we wanted to com­mu­ni­cate the scene to a broader au­di­ence.”

“At its heart it was an an­ti­war play” michael har­ris

By the fol­low­ing year, Rado and Ragni had im­mor­talised New York’s hippy sub­cul­ture in a new mu­si­cal, Hair. Open­ing at the city’s Bilt­more The­atre in April, Hair took race, sex, drugs and anti-war pol­i­tics from the streets of the Lower East Side to Amer­i­can theatregoers. Tourists now took trips into the Lower East Side to gawp at the freaks, caus­ing one lo­cal artist to run his own tours in re­tal­i­a­tion – bussing heads out to Queens, where they could watch straight sub­ur­ban­ites wash their cars and mow their lawns. “The songs from Hair have be­come deep-rooted in our pop cul­ture,” says Merle Fer­nick, who was pub­li­cist for the Broad­way pro­duc­tion and still rep­re­sents Rado to­day. “Those songs fu­elled the heart of the anti-war move­ment and Hair was a ma­jor force in turn­ing the life­style of a mi­nor­ity into the life­style of a gen­er­a­tion.”

Rado and Ragni’s skill was to in­cor­po­rate some of the more dra­matic as­pects of the hippy life­style – sex­ual free­dom, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, drug ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, sex­ual and racial pol­i­tics – into a wider mes­sage about peace and love that gath­ered res­o­nance through the dark days of 1968.

Michael Har­ris was raised on the Lower East Side. Like many of the Hair cast, he was re­cruited partly be­cause he knew the world that was be­ing de­picted on stage – his el­der brother, Ge­orge, was the pro­tes­tor pho­tographed plant­ing a flower in the bar­rel of the sol­dier’s ri­fle at the 1967 March On The Pen­tagon demo. Har­ris joined Hair at 16 be­fore even­tu­ally run­ning off to San Fran­cisco to live in a com­mune. He still thinks the play’s po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion is too eas­ily for­got­ten amid sin­ga­long an­thems such “Aquar­ius” and “Let The Sun­shine In”. “Hair is of­ten re­mem­bered as the happy hippy mu­si­cal with a nude scene but at its heart it was an anti-war play,” he says. “It was a se­ri­ous state­ment against any­thing that dis­rupts the hu­man fam­ily. All of the silli­ness and fun and joy in the show is a cel­e­bra­tion of that fam­ily. Hair was of­fer­ing a flower of hope for ev­ery­body.” Hair was a com­mer­cial take on a real thing – coun­ter­cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion if you will, but that didn’t mean it was com­pletely in­au­then­tic. For many of that cast – which in­cluded fu­ture stars Diane Keaton, Paul Jabara, Melba Moore, Keith Car­ra­dine, Barry McGuire and Meat Loaf – their time in Hair was a po­lit­i­cal as much as a the­atri­cal ed­u­ca­tion. Per­form­ers were in­vited to sing at anti-war events and many be­came po­lit­i­cally ac­tive. Natalie Mosco was 17 when she ap­peared with the orig­i­nal Broad­way lineup. “You couldn’t do this show eight times a week and not con­front your own be­liefs,” she says. “Even­tu­ally you need to take a stand. Just the con­cept that ‘the draft was white peo­ple send­ing black peo­ple to make war on the yel­low peo­ple to de­fend land they stole from red peo­ple’. There it is in one sen­tence and there were so many of those, you couldn’t ig­nore it. How can it not have a pro­found ef­fect on you at that age?” “The cast be­came in­doc­tri­nated,” chuck­les Rado, now 86, proudly. “I re­ally feel that we ac­com­plished some­thing that Or­son Welles and the Ac­tors Stu­dio were try­ing to do, which was to cre­ate re­al­ity on stage. Be­cause there re­ally were hip­pies, they were a sub­set of so­ci­ety and peo­ple were brought in to por­tray hip­pies and they be­came hip­pies, so the au­di­ence felt they were watch­ing real hip­pies. We cre­ated this re­al­ity for the cast and au­di­ence be­cause it was about some­thing so im­por­tant and dif­fer­ent.”

GEROME Ragni and Jim Rado first met in 1964, when they were both cast in a play to­gether. “It was called Hang Down Your Head And Die and it did, it closed the day it opened,” says Jill O’Hara, a cast mate who later ap­peared in the first off-Broad­way ver­sion of Hair. Rado had al­ways wanted to write a Broad­way mu­si­cal, but it was only af­ter be­com­ing friends with Ragni that he rekin­dled his dream. Although in­spired by the colony of hip­pies they en­coun­tered at St Mark’s Place, Rado quickly ze­roed in on what he calls “the love el­e­ment”. He says, “That white male thing that was hap­pen­ing was a break­through. Sud­denly men were be­com­ing free to grow their hair long and em­brace each other with big smiles on their faces. It was phys­i­cal but it wasn’t sex­ual. The hip­pies we met were largely het­ero­sex­ual but with this phys­i­cal af­fec­tion be­tween men.”

Dur­ing the years they worked on Hair, Rado and Ragni be­came lovers. “Gerry and I had a won­der­ful re­la­tion­ship, an in­tense re­la­tion­ship, we re­ally loved each other and we made a baby – we chan­nelled it into Hair. I felt love was very im­por­tant in what was hap­pen­ing in the world,” he says. The story they de­vised fo­cused on two young men, Claude and Berger, who run with tribe of New York freaks – un­til Claude is drafted.

Hav­ing writ­ten a script and lyrics, the pair needed some­body who could write mu­sic. Rado says that an early at­tempt to re­cruit “a jazz com­poser, I think Her­bie Han­cock” ended in fail­ure af­ter “he took the song ‘Hair’ and gave it back to us with half the lyrics cut out”. In­stead, they found Galt MacDer­mot, who had won a Grammy in 1960 for “African Waltz”, a hit for Can­non­ball Ad­der­ley in the States and Johnny Dankworth in the UK. “When they ap­proached me my first thought was, ‘Thank God some­body wants me to make a mu­si­cal’, but I had no idea what it was about,” says MacDer­mot. “Dur­ing the meet­ing Gerry was hid­ing on the street cor­ner – he didn’t want me to meet him be­cause he looked like a hippy. They brought me the lyrics but didn’t tell me what they wanted, they just left me to it.”

MacDer­mot worked within the Broad­way show­tune tra­di­tion, but in­cor­po­rated el­e­ments of soul and funk. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary as­pect, in Broad­way terms, in­stead came from the strong po­lit­i­cal mes­sage in Rado and Ragni’s lyrics. The songs were also unortho­dox. Some sim­ply listed racial ep­i­thets, oth­ers were pep­pered with pro­fan­ity and one – the touch­ing and much-cov­ered “Frank Mills” – was copied ver­ba­tim from a let­ter to the

Vil­lage Voice. Michael Har­ris ar­gues that MacDer­mot’s mu­sic acted as a Tro­jan Horse for Rado and Ragni’s sub­ver­sive ideas. “The mu­sic had to strad­dle the line for the mes­sage to be re­ceived by a broader au­di­ence and an au­di­ence that needed to hear it much more than those in the cul­ture it was ac­tu­ally por­tray­ing,” he says. “Hair was mu­si­cal the­atre and all of the el­e­ments – book, lyric and song – had to work. With­out Galt, it would have been very dif­fi­cult.”

Be­fore they could con­sider open­ing on Broad­way, the team needed to show the play could work. As they be­gan scout­ing around for an off-Broad­way lo­ca­tion, they also put to­gether the cast. Jill O’Hara re­calls the lengthy au­di­tion process – she re­calls hav­ing five. “I was re­ally pissed off and al­most didn’t go to the fi­nal au­di­tion,” she says. “I thought, ‘Come on, you must know by now.’ I later learnt some of the cast had some­thing like 16 au­di­tions be­cause they had an astrologer who was part of the com­pany and their stars weren’t aligned prop­erly.” O’Hara was a folksinger at Café Wha?, work­ing along­side Richard Pryor and Richie Havens, when she went for the Hair job. “I don’t know if I even had a script, I just knew it was a rock mu­si­cal, which was very un­usual at the time,” she says. “To me, it was a job and I was a se­ri­ous ac­tress, but for them it was some­thing else, they re­ally be­lieved in this cause.” Subti­tled “The Amer­i­can Tribal Love-Rock Mu­si­cal”,

Hair in­au­gu­rated the new Pub­lic The­atre on 425 Lafayette in the East Vil­lage, run­ning for six weeks from Oc­to­ber 17, 1967. This ver­sion was very dif­fer­ent from the one that would open on Broad­way in April 1968, fea­tur­ing fewer songs, a smaller cast and fo­cus­ing more on the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the four leads. The orig­i­nal di­rec­tor was Gerald Freed­man, who O’Hara re­calls as a “bril­liant stager” who en­cour­aged im­pro­vi­sa­tion – the play was partly born out of the Open The­ater tra­di­tion of ex­per­i­men­tal the­atre. “Gerry Ragni also had a back­ground in the Open The­ater and was very re­bel­lious; that’s why they did things like open the fourth wall and put ac­tors in the au­di­ence,” says O’Hara. “That was his en­ergy.” Af­ter open­ing night, the cast went out to cel­e­brate and then “crawled on our hands and knees” to the stu­dio the next day to make the first of many cast LPs.

Among that orig­i­nal cast were sev­eral am­a­teur per­form­ers Rado and Ragni found in lo­cal bars and clubs. Hair lit­er­ally took peo­ple off the streets and turned them into stars by ask­ing them to sing about sex, drugs and love, and later take their clothes off while do­ing so. “We were re­cruit­ing off the streets be­cause we needed guys with long hair, and no­body had long hair in the the­atre,” says Rado. “Any­body with long hair, we’d go up and ask them if they could sing. Not ev­ery­body wanted to do it. We went into a night­club, the Nite Owl, and there was a band with a long-haired gui­tar player and we in­vited him to an au­di­tion and on the way out there was a very pretty cashier. That was Shel­ley Plimp­ton. She brought an amp to the au­di­tion and sang ‘With A Lit­tle Help From My Friends’ and it was ex­tremely mov­ing, so we cast her.” When one re­viewer noted that “it feels like

“A safe way of ob­serv­ing with­out be­ing part of it” paUL Ni­CHoLas

ev­ery­body from the streets on the Lower East Side has been scraped up and thrown on the stage”, the the­atre owner, Joseph Papp, had the quote blown up and put in the lobby.

THE pro­duc­tion moved to the Chee­tah night­club be­fore clos­ing in Jan­uary 1968. Rado and Ragni be­gan rewrit­ing for Broad­way, while MacDer­mot com­posed sev­eral new songs; a new di­rec­tor was ap­pointed. This was Tom O’Hor­gan, who – in­spired by events like the Cen­tral Park Be-In, which fea­tured nude protestors – dras­ti­cally changed the show. “Af­ter the au­di­tion, we got the off-Broad­way script and then Tom took scis­sors to the whole thing,” says Mosco. “As­pects came and went, or­ders were re­versed, new songs ap­peared. ‘Let The Sun­shine In’ was writ­ten to end it. How bril­liant were these three men that they could write so quickly.”

Some weeks into the run, O’Hor­gan made his most dra­matic change by in­tro­duc­ing a nude scene at the end of the first act. Natalie Mosco re­calls O’Hor­gan dis­cussing this with the cast in a “de­li­ciously ma­nip­u­la­tive way”. She con­tin­ues, “He went to each one of us in­di­vid­u­ally and pulled us aside and asked how we felt about do­ing it. It had hap­pened at a Be-In and the other cast mem­bers were very ex­cited – would I be in­ter­ested? I wasn’t in­ter­ested at first, but suf­fice to say those of us who were most ve­he­mently op­posed be­came the most pro.”

Heather MacRae, join­ing the cast later in the run, avoided nu­dity for her first week or so but then got into the swing of it. “I thought what the hell, I’m young. I just didn’t do it when my dad came,” she says.

One thing that re­mained con­sis­tent was the in­ten­sity of the au­di­tion process. Merle Fri­mark thinks this was to en­sure the en­sem­ble cast had the right bal­ance, as they were be­ing asked to por­tray the col­lec­tive spirit of hip­piedom as rep­re­sented by the Tribe. “It’s very hard to get that free spirit from the ac­tors,” she says. “It’s not some­thing you can nec­es­sar­ily learn in an act­ing class. Tom spent a lot of time de­vel­op­ing that. He did a lot of trust ex­er­cises that would bring them to­gether.” un­der O’Hor­gan’s tute­lage, the Tribe as­sumed a more prom­i­nent role. They be­came more than sim­ply a cho­rus, in­stead pro­vid­ing a back­ing cast of char­ac­ters who could come to the fore to take on themes such as cen­sor­ship (“Sodomy”), race (“Col­ored Spade”, “Black Boys/White Boys”), ecol­ogy (“Air”) and drugs (“Hashish”, “Walk­ing In Space”). A rock band per­formed on stage, ex­chang­ing ad libs with the cast, while Rado and Ragni also con­sciously wrote for black ac­tors. “We wanted to bring race into the mix,” says Rado. “The hippy move­ment was white, pretty much, but we didn’t just want white peo­ple on stage, we felt ev­ery­body should be rep­re­sented.”

Above all, the play was about Viet­nam and the on­go­ing war that was con­sum­ing so many young Amer­i­can lives. “The main thing I wanted the au­di­ence to take home was that the war was wrong,” says Rado. “It was a very emo­tional story, but it was a com­edy be­cause this was a light-hearted move­ment, it wasn’t just an­gry. We were try­ing to cre­ate a new world – free­dom, love, peace, joy and a lot of crazi­ness. It’s ide­al­is­tic.”

This op­ti­mism ran some­what con­trary to the mood of 1968, a year that was seem­ingly spi­ralling out of con­trol. Heather MacRae joined the Broad­way cast in Oc­to­ber 1968, hav­ing orig­i­nally au­di­tioned for the role of Sheila in the LA pro­duc­tion – a part that went to Jen­nifer Warnes. But when Diane Keaton sud­denly de­parted the Broad­way show, MacRae was asked to fill her shoes. “Be­tween the time it opened of­fBroad­way and the open­ing on Broad­way, things got worse in Viet­nam and Mar­tin Luther King was as­sas­si­nated,” she says. “Then RFK was as­sas­si­nated and we had Chicago. There were huge changes in 1967 and ’68 all over the world. We were asked to per­form and par­tic­i­pate in ral­lies and marches, and it opened my eyes as to what was go­ing on in this coun­try. One of the great­est things about Hair is that it was a great job, but it was a show we could re­ally be­lieve in, it spoke to me. And who didn’t love the mu­sic?”

Hair swiftly be­came a fran­chise. Af­ter six months, a pro­duc­tion opened in LA that ran for two years and soon there were pro­duc­tions in nine cities, in­clud­ing Seat­tle, Detroit and Chicago. The first Eu­ro­pean pro­duc­tion opened in Swe­den in Septem­ber 1968. It was fol­lowed soon af­ter by Lon­don, and then Mu­nich – the lat­ter adap­tated by Can af­fil­i­ate Kar­lheinz ‘Kalle’ Freynik. Hair ar­rived in Aus­tralia in June 1969. Each coun­try’s pro­duc­tion took a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach. In Detroit, the band in­cluded a horn sec­tion prom­i­nent in the mix. In Aus­tralia, where there was the draft, the anti-war el­e­ment was more evolved than in ei­ther Lon­don or Paris. The nu­dity was also han­dled dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions, with the LA cast em­brac­ing a brightly lit scene that left lit­tle to the imag­i­na­tion, while the French cast were said to be more en­thu­si­as­tic than the British. The in­ter­na­tional ver­sions also pro­vided open­ings for more per­form­ers, in­clud­ing Donna Sum­mer in Ger­many. The play was even per­formed in Com­mu­nist Yu­goslavia. In Mex­ico, mean­while, it was closed by the govern­ment af­ter one night. These pro­duc­tions meant that in 1970 the show was mak­ing al­most $1m ev­ery 10 days, while the com­posers col­lected roy­al­ties from 300 cast record­ings.

PAuL Ni­cholas re­mem­bered hear­ing about the con­tro­versy Hair had caused in New York be­fore he au­di­tioned in spring 1968 for the Lon­don pro­duc­tion. Pre­vi­ously a drum­mer with Scream­ing Lord Sutch’s band, Ni­cholas had stopped per­form­ing to take a straight job in mu­sic pub­lish­ing. The siren call of Hair, how­ever, proved too much. Af­ter a long au­di­tion process, he was handed the role of Claude and Hair opened at the Shaftes­bury The­atre in Septem­ber 1969. The open­ing had been de­layed sev­eral months while the pro­duc­ers waited for the pass­ing of the The­atres Act, which re­duced state cen­sor­ship and al­lowed Hair to be per­formed un­cut. True to form, the cast fea­tured the oc­ca­sional gen­uine freak – Alex Harvey played gui­tar, Sonja Kristina of Curved Air sang “Frank Mills”, song­writer Paul Korda had a role – as well as young pros like Richard O’Brien, Tim Curry and Floella Ben­jamin. To add to the fun, there were gen­uine Lon­don hip­pies liv­ing in the flat above the the­atre, in­clud­ing a scorn­ful Mick Far­ren, who at­tempted to gate­crash the pro­duc­tion much to the dis­ap­proval of the the­atre se­cu­rity.

Hair’s Lon­don pre­miere was at­tended by Mick Jag­ger, whose cur­rent flame Mar­sha Hunt was among the cast. Hunt was pho­tographed nude by Lord Lich­field for the pro­duc­tion’s pub­lic­ity photo, an im­age that helped sell the show to a uK au­di­ence. For many of the cast, Ni­cholas in­cluded, it was the start of a long ca­reer in the­atre and TV. Ni­cholas still be­lieves Hair’s mes­sage needed to be heard. “For a com­mer­cial West End show it had some­thing to say,” he says. “It was very anti-war and it was about break­ing down norms. Plus it was a rock show – not heavy, but a rock in­flu­ence. It was meant to shock and some peo­ple were of­fended. We did have a very good spirit as a com­pany and there was a lot of joy and cel­e­bra­tion that came from that. I don’t know if the hip­pies ever came to see it. They were al­ready liv­ing it, so it was win­dow for those peo­ple who weren’t part of that life­style. It was a safe way of ob­serv­ing with­out be­ing part of some­thing.” On Broad­way, the pro­duc­ers con­tin­ued to sup­ple­ment the cast from the streets. Heather MacRae re­mem­bers a busker, Singer Wil­liams, who “had a fab­u­lous voice but didn’t un­der­stand you had to show up at 7.30pm. Peo­ple like that made it in­ter­est­ing. Peo­ple would go on stage high or on acid.” The free-lov­ing spirit of the Tribe led to the birth of ac­tress Martha Plimp­ton – the daugh­ter of cast mem­bers Keith Car­ra­dine and Shel­ley Plimp­ton. But there were also ca­su­al­ties. “A lot of the cast were gath­ered from the streets, they were hippy kids from the Lower East Side,” says Jill O’Hara. “This had un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences later on when they found them­selves in this huge hit show. There was tremen­dous drug use and some of them got very messed up. There was a lot of bad stuff and a lot of dis­il­lu­sion­ment for those who were un­der­study­ing a role and ex­pected to take it over when some­body left but didn’t have the chops.” Hair ran on Broad­way un­til 1971 and lasted even longer in Lon­don – only clos­ing in 1973 when the the­atre roof col­lapsed. A film ver­sion ap­peared in 1979 di­rected by Milos For­man. The mu­si­cal has been re­vived on stage reg­u­larly – a new, 50th-an­niver­sary pro­duc­tion ran ear­lier this year off-West End in Lon­don – although it’s never quite found a cause with quite as much trac­tion as Viet­nam. Ragni died in 1991, but Rado is still work­ing on their “baby”, con­stantly rewrit­ing the script in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to per­fect the play. He in­sists that Hair re­mains as rel­e­vant as it ever was. “I’m elated and flab­ber­gasted that it’s still hap­pen­ing,” he says. “Hair has never gone away. I think we knew that what was hap­pen­ing was so deep, so pro­found, so real and yet so ba­sic and it moved us so deeply. There was magic, a lot of syn­chronic­ity, but there was a deep hu­man mes­sage that still rings true and makes peo­ple think about how to par­take in a joy­ous life­style about some­thing se­ri­ous."

Us cast mem­bers michael har­ris (top), meat loaf and Keith car­ra­dine

• UN­CUT • JULY 2018

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