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