Whenever you see a TV documentary on the 1960s, or the hippies, or the anti-war movement, you are likely to hear the song “Aquarius”. Hair was launched on September 17, 1967. Its authors, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, had worked on it for roughly two years, until they discovered former South African composer Galt McDermot, who “was trying to communicate elements of freedom” in his songs.
Their grand narrative was an exploration of the new “hippie” zeitgeist. ‘Hippiedom’ had made a profound impact on American culture in the previous two years. The term was first coined by Michael Fallon in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 5, 1965. Following the publication of this first essay on the hippie zeitgeist, teams of researchers went into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and the East Village in New York, to describe what was understood to be the second generation of ‘Beats’.
Rado and Ragni also conducted fieldwork amongst the hippies, later using it as raw material for the musical. A consensus emerged that hippiedom was a counterculture comprising the children of the affluent middle class who lived in rejection of their parents’ values. Its members were first of all characterised by a general anti-establishment attitude, and visually by their long hair.
Hippies embraced all people of colour and were generally anti-racist. Most of them also displayed a liberal sexual behaviour, a drop-out attitude and commonly smoked marijuana. The main theme, however, was the protest against the war in Vietnam with anti-racism ranked a close second. At one stage Hud, a black tribe member, asked: “why do white men send black men away to kill yellow men to defend a country which they stole from the red men?
”Theatre in the 1960s was vibrant on both sides of the Atlantic. Experiments were the order of the day. An entirely new theatrical scene developed in New York in the early 1960s, designated as “off Broadway”, in Soho, Greenwich Village and the Bowery, with enterprises such as the legendary “La Mama” theatre, the “Living Theatre” and the “La MaMa Experimental Theatre Company”. One such “concept musical” was launched off Broadway in September 1966 and its title was Viet Rock. This prototype owed much to Joe Papp, the creator of the New York “Public Theatre” (1965) and the annual “Shakespeare in the Park” festival, which is still an important feature of New York’s theatrical summer culture. When the two authors, Rado and Ragni, were rejected by Broadway and one producer after another, and then miraculously accepted by Joe Papp for a limited eight-week run at his Public Theatre, a deal was quickly struck.
A consensus emerged that hippiedom was a counterculture comprising the children of the affluent middle class that lived in rejection of their parents’ values. Its members were first of all characterised by a general anti-establishment attitude, and visually by their long hair
Joe Papp did not show sufficient interest to sell his production to any of the Broadway houses, and so it seemed as if the musical was finished. But then, a second miracle occurred. Michael Butler, the youthful scion of the exceedingly wealthy Butler dynasty of Chicago, saw one of the last shows at the Public Theatre. He secured the rights for a Broadway performance, which he himself produced. As artistic director, he hired Bertrand Castelli, a writer-producer with a first class reputation, who had worked with Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Raoul Dufy, to name but three. Castelli was then the director of a ballet company and was able to bring in a number of experimentalists, including Andy Warhol and Tom O’Horgan to “inject vitality into the precious, static, obsolete world of ballet.”
In the winter of 1967-68, the “tribe” staged the show as it had been prepared for the premiere at the run-down “Cheetah” discotheque on 45th Street, while at the same time rehearsing for the opening at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, which then happened on April 29, 1968.
September 1967’s world premiere at the Public Theatre did not take New York by storm. This had more to do with the timing of the show than its inherent quality. In 1967 the country was still behind the Johnson Administration when it came to the war in Vietnam, while the hippie counterculture – so lovingly portrayed in Hair – was viewed with suspicion. But on April 29, 1968 came the Broadway launch in the Biltmore Theatre, where it started a run of 1,750 performances. Only seven months had passed since the world premiere at Joe Papp’s venue, but these were months of great political change. American TV viewers were stunned to find that an enemy that had been described as practically defeated by their government was able to launch an offensive throughout South Vietnam.
On April 2, the first Democratic primary since TET was held in Wisconsin, in which the hitherto largely unknown peace advocate Eugene McCarthy received only 300 votes fewer than incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson. Thus the antiwar message of Hair found a highly receptive audience.
There were other factors of success. Its refreshingly outspoken references to sex, dope and nudity turned the show into an instant commercial success. Critics were at first divided between traditionalists (who hated the formlessness of Hair and its anti-establishment messages) and more progressive reviewers. Clive Barnes, the New York Times’ critic, wrote in his review, “Hair is now a musical with a theme, not a story. In fact it has been made into the frankest show in town.”
The London show ran for 1,997 nights, longer than the Broadway show, and when it came to a halt in 1974 it was only because the theatre had a leaking roof that needed structural repair
There were also negative reviews. David Merrick, a traditionalist show producer, said, “I don’t know what the hell this is. I don’t know why people like it.” John Chapman (Daily News) denounced it as “… vulgar, perverted, tasteless, cheap, cynical, offensive, and generally lousy, and everybody connected with it should be washed in strong soap and hung up to dry in the sun.”
However, after the first two weeks, the show was sold out for months in advance. Critics wrote that, with Hair, a new age, the Age of Aquarius, had dawned. This was to be an age of peace and harmony, of communal love, an age that would abolish war and racial discrimination, aggression, and crime. The values of competitive individualism would be replaced by values of joyful sharing and collectivism: hence the importance of the term “tribe” instead of “cast”. This message is very well communicated in the well-known song, “Aquarius”. It is worth noting that at the start of the number, a morning is musically evoked, with the members of the tribe gradually awakening and forming a chorus that begins to chant the key words of the new Age. What is Hair about? The plot is threadbare and less important than the messages of the individual songs combined. We follow a group of politically active Hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” who fight against conscription into the Vietnam War while living a bohemian lifestyle together in a New York loft. Claude is the nominal group leader. Berger an irreverent free spirit. Sheila is a New York University film student in love with both of them. Woof is a bisexual gentle soul. Jeanie is in love with Claude but pregnant by another man. Hud is a Black Panther, and Crissy, Dionne and others struggle to balance their young lives and loves with their resistance to the Vietnam War and the conservative ideology of their society.
The original New York tribe included both writers Rado and Ragni, as well as Diane Keaton. The show’s greatest notoriety was a scene at the end of Act One in which the whole cast appears nude on stage, symbolically signifying that the tribe have nothing to hide. Diane Keaton, however, included a clause in the contract that allowed her not to appear nude in that finale. She left the “tribe” after only a few months.
But that nude scene caused a lot of problems for the musical’s producer and authors. Not so much in New York, where Butler had made discreet inquiries about how the NYPD would react to the nudity, finding that it would be quietly tolerated, but only 500 kilometres further north there was trouble in a city that is otherwise renowned for its liberality and tolerance: Boston.
Hair made legal history. In March 1969, the show in Boston was closed down after only one performance, because a local district attorney thought it violated laws pertaining to obscenity. Seven judges had attended it, and after the viewing, their verdict was to ban it in toto. The judges suggested that the actors put on some discreet underwear for the end of Act One and that the American flag during the song “don’t put it down” should not touch the ground.
In a TV documentary on Hair, Butler explains that opposition both to him and members of the tribe was no joke. He received a number of death threats over the phone, which, he claims, the FBI traced back to the reactionary John Birch society, without taking legal action against them. Real tragedy struck in 1970 in Cleveland, when the hotel where virtually the entire tribe and their families were staying was torched. The police concluded that the fire’s cause was arson. Four people died in the blaze.
The Belgrade show (directors Zoran Ratković and Mira Trailović, July 1979) was attended by President Jozip Broz Tito, who warmly applauded the cast
HAIR SPREADS ACROSS EUROPE
Hair was, without any doubt, a milestone in the history of the Broadway musical, as it was a milestone regarding art and society in Europe. It was the first rock musical on Broadway and thus a trendsetter. It brought hippie culture to the attention of mainstream America, but Hair also resulted in hippie culture’s leaving the domain of the United States and going global.
As a musical, Hair spread faster and further than any other musical before or since. Within just a year, there were 14 productions across the U.S. and one in London, at the venerable Shaftesbury Theatre. After a year of generally sold-out performances, the Broadway tribe held a free open-air performance in Central Park (New York City), to an audience of 10,000. By then, the show had netted profits of $2 million. Within two years, there were productions in London, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Munich, Rome, Stockholm, Bergen, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Sydney, and Belgrade. Like the Beatles, Hair had become a global phenomenon.
Many more productions followed in the early 1970s. The movie Hair, directed by Milos Forman, was launched in 1979, but did not have the approval of the original authors, who felt that it was too neat and mainstream to do justice to the original show’s irreverence. In 1988, for the 10th anniversary, there was a reunion of the original Broadway tribe and a one-night gala performance in the Grand Assembly Hall of the United Nations. The show’s patrons were former UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Walters, who introduced it to the audience. Ticket prices ranged from $500 to $5000, while the proceeds went towards the U.S. AIDS foundation. As a result of the UN revival, the 1990s saw a spate of revivals, not only in America but all across the globe. In 1991, there were 13 separate recordings, while in 2007 there were 36 albums, including Austrian, Israeli, and Icelandic albums.
All told they have sold millions of copies. Forbes magazine reported that no fewer than four million people saw the show within the first two years, and that it earned a total of $22 million during that time. By the time it completed its American run, in the mid-1970s, it had earned $80 million. The amount earned from overseas productions probably exceeds that $80 million, while the show and its recordings continue to make millions of dollars each year. There are currently 19 revivals in the U.S. and at least 15 other countries worldwide.
As it conquered Europe, Hair created its own local headlines. In London, for instance, where the office of the official censor was abolished just before the show opened, the authorities did not make any fuss about the nudity, but some of the cast refused to strip to their birthday suits. The London show ran for 1,997 nights, longer than the Broadway show, and when it came to a halt in 1974, it was only because the theatre had a leaking roof that needed structural repair.
In Paris the nudity was fervently embraced, with the actors actually insisting that the lights should not be dimmed while they presented themselves naked. In Bergen, a group of “concerned citizens” unsuccessfully tried to stop the premiere by blocking access to the theatre. In Copenhagen, which was then considered the “sex capital” of Europe, the actors thought the nudity was the central message of the play, and that Broadway had been far too modest. The Belgrade show (directors Zoran Ratković and Mira Trailović, July 1979) was attended by President Jozip Broz Tito, who warmly applauded the cast. This warm welcome did not apply to the Mexican production at Acapulco, launched in 1969. The whole cast were arrested at 7 am after the opening night and hauled off to jail. There they were given a stark choice: either leave the country immediately or face criminal charges. The cast thought it wiser to start packing.
The wildest episode concerns the Munich production. First of all, when Rado and Ragni arrived and checked into the hotel Amba, Harald Süßmeier, the proprietor, refused to give them rooms on account of their long hair. A few days before the opening show, the police approached the German producer and threatened to arrest the actors if they appeared nude on the stage.
One thing that all non-American productions had in common, and to which Butler later made some objection, was that their general tone was far more critical of America. The original production did not have that intention, he complained. Another commonality: the songs and dialogues were always translated into the local language. As Butler explained, not to have the local language was tantamount to cultural imperialism.
Despite its poor ranking in the list of longest runs, Hair is often described as “far and away the most important musical offering… of the era.” No other musical in the history of Broadway and London’s West End has had such a profound impact on the local zeitgeist as Hair.
The most infectious song is its last one, which has the curious double title of “The Flesh’s Failures” or “Let the Sunshine In.” The song should really be a song of mourning for the death of Claude in Vietnam, but then it turns into a joyful celebration of the “life goes on” idea. If life goes on, so does the cultural influence of Hair.
It continues to captivate us not only with its musical score, but also with its underlying values of brotherhood, peace and harmony.