Broadway Features and Reviews
HAIR Story: Hidden History Of A Broadway Hit
By Daniel Luzer, Broadway Magazine
There is much speculation that the current HAIR production in Central Park will soon move to Broadway. HAIR is now accepted as one of America's important musicals, helping to define the counter-culture and free-love movement of the 1960s.
But in the late 60s, as the world was torn by the Vietnam War, race riots, and the unraveling of the Great Society, Broadway remained unaffected. Broadway was in 1968 still a show tune-based thing mostly the territory of middle-aged society matrons. Broadway productions were expensive to stage; producers were wary of daring plays. It was a great decade for musicals like Camelot, Hello Dolly, and Oliver, all shows with proven records of success. These were unquestionably very good, but removed from what was going on outside.
For out-of-work actors Gerome Ragni and James Rado, this was a problem. The theatre was the place to reflect the turmoil in society. HAIR, a rock musical about Claude, an American man whose most only valuable possession is his hair, was conceived and written over two years by Ragni and Rado. HAIR unfolds as Claude faces induction into the Army and the apparent loss of his freedom. "From the start, I envisioned that the score of HAIR would be something new," said Rado. "A kind of pop rock/show tune hybrid." It was time to bring the hippies to Broadway.
From the start Ragni and Rado wanted HAIR on Broadway. They knew and appreciated Broadway but as actors they felt its offerings were stodgier than their generation needed. They wanted a musical to reflect the experience they were having in New York in the sixties.
The authors pitched HAIR to many, many Broadway producers. But no one was interested; a new play is always risky and this musical was too controversial. But director Joseph Papp was intrigued by HAIR. Papp proposed that, for a limited run, HAIR become the first production of the Public Theater, the venue Papp was organizing in one of New York's oldest public buildings, the Astor Library on Lafayette Street. With the building still gutted, Papp negotiated with Ragni and Rado to make HAIR the first presentation in his new space.
This was not what Ragni and Rado imagined for their musical. They wanted HAIR on Broadway; that was the point. And plays did not go from Off-Broadway to Broadway; it only worked in the other direction.
But Papp made a convincing case and the first performance of the musical that defined the Age of Aquarius occurred off Broadway, in the East Village. HAIR opened at The Public Theater on Oct. 17, 1967.
From the start, HAIR was divisive. Critics objected to the musical's irreverence and its profanity. Many found the use of rock music in a theatrical performance vulgar. The nude scene at the end of Act One was (and often still is) a matter of considerable tumult. But several, like the eminent director Tom O'Horgan, appreciated the musical. "It's almost an attempt to give Broadway mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," O'Horgan later said of Hair.
Nevertheless, HAIR had only six weeks at the Public Theatre. The musical got an opportunity to change Broadway only when producer Michael Butler discovered the play, by accident.
Butler was an affluent young man from Chicago, the heir to a paper fortune, who was considering running for the U.S. Senate. Butler saw the poster for HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical at his racquet club. For some reason thinking it was a play about American Indians, he saw the musical and was captivated by the antiwar message. He bought the rights to HAIR, and, after altering and expanding the musical, opened it on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968.
It was the first Off-Broadway musical to make that move.
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