Jim Rado, the creator of Hair has been both vilified and celebrated in public since the first performance of Hair opened onstage. It is not an overstatement to say that his work changed the society we all live in and broke boundaries that pushed musical theatre forward. Hair is not only a work of soulful music, intensely intimate themes, backdrops of epic as well as shockingly small proportions. Above all, it was the moment at which the hippie ethos was captured. Considering the violence, police action, and anger that the musical engendered, how does Jim feel about it now?
The History of Hair
The roar heard at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968, was the zeitgeist of the ‘60s infiltrating Broadway. The occasion was the opening night of Hair. Clive Barnes, theater critic for The New York Times, enthusiastically called the show “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.” He was alluding to the fact that this self-described “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” reflected the taste of the young generation; the score sounded like the popular music being played on the radio. What the groundbreaking show didn’t sound like was any other Broadway musical.
It’s almost incomprehensible today, when rock musicals are so much a part of the fabric of American culture, that there was a time, not terribly long ago, when the idea of a rock musical on Broadway seemed outlandish, implausible. But when James Rado and the late Gerome Ragni, who wrote the book and lyrics for Hair, initially tried to interest Broadway producers in the show, no one wanted anything to do with it. It wasn’t just the sound of the show that was different; it was the very essence of the very unstructured material: a tribe of hippies singing, sometimes profanely, about their dreams and fears and concerns – not to mention sex and drugs – seemed out of place on Broadway. And that was precisely why Rado and Ragni set their sights on Broadway. “We wanted to reach the uptown crowd and shake things up,” says Rado. “The subject matter was unlike anything that had been done on Broadway.”
Through an agent, they sent the script to a number of producers. There were no takers. Those same producers likely regretted their decision, as the original Broadway production of Hair played 1750 performances and ran for more than four years. And the show’s timelessness was validated when the recent production, directed by Diane Paulus, won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The characters onstage may be hippies, but their experiences and emotions speak to all generations, and resonate powerfully in these uncertain times.
The touring company of Hair met with resistance throughout the United States. In South Bend, Indiana, the Morris Civic Auditorium refused booking, and in Evansville, Indiana, the production was picketed by several church groups. In Indianapolis, Indiana, the producers had difficulty securing a theater, and city authorities suggested that the cast wear body stockings as a compromise to the city's ordinance prohibiting publicly displayed nudity. Productions were frequently confronted with the closure of theaters by the fire marshal, as in Gladewater, Texas. Chattanooga's 1972 refusal to allow the play to be shown at the city-owned Memorial Auditorium was later found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be an unlawful prior restraint.
The legal challenges against the Boston production were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Chief of the Licensing Bureau took exception to the portrayal of the American flag in the piece, saying, "anyone who desecrates the flag should be whipped on Boston Common." Although the scene was removed before opening, the District Attorney's office began plans to stop the show, claiming that "lewd and lascivious" actions were taking place onstage. The Hair legal team obtained an injunction against criminal prosecution from the Superior Court, and the D.A. appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. At the request of both parties, several of the justices viewed the production and handed down a ruling that "each member of the cast [must] be clothed to a reasonable extent." The cast defiantly played the scene nude later that night, stating that the ruling was vague as to when it would take effect. The next day, April 10, 1970, the production closed, and movie houses, fearing the ruling on nudity, began excising scenes from films in their exhibition. After the Federal appellate bench reversed the Massachusetts court's ruling, the D.A. appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 4–4 decision, the Court upheld the lower court's decision, allowing Hair to re-open on May 22.
In April 1971, a bomb was thrown at the exterior of a theater in Cleveland, Ohio that had been housing a production, bouncing off the marquee and shattering windows in the building and in nearby storefronts. That same month, the families of cast member Jonathon Johnson and stage manager Rusty Carlson died in a fire in the Cleveland hotel where 33 members of the show's troupe had been staying. The Sydney, Australia production's opening night was interrupted by a bomb scare in June 1969
The revival is considerably different from the original Broadway production, which was quite different from the first off-Broadway production at New York’s Public Theater. The premise and the characters have stayed the same, but the details have changed. “The idea was to write a show about hippies, about the ‘peace/love movement,” says Rado. “The hippie movement was largely a white movement, but we wanted to have an integrated cast. So we decided to bring in black characters and address the civil rights aspects of the day.