Aquarius, the astrological sign, begins tomorrow, Jan. 20, and runs through Feb. 19. It is generally regarded as the most humanitarian zodiac sign, presaging radical change and progress. This aspect of Aquarius was the underpinning of one of the most popular rock musicals of the 1960s, one that tapped into the push for radical change at a time of great upheaval in the U.S. This would, of course be, Hair: An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. PKM reconsiders Hair after more than 50 years and find that it still resonates on the eve of a welcome inauguration.
“Harmony and understanding / Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions / Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation / And the mind’s true liberation.”-“Aquarius,” from Hair: An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Occasionally, stage productions can perfectly capture the zeitgeist and become, if only briefly, something far more important than a 2-hour diversion. During the Great Depression, Clifford Odets struck some nerves with Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!; during the Beat era, the Living Theater in New York was groundbreaking in its productions of Beckett, Ionesco, Artaud and Genet—the names of those who ruled the avant-garde drama. And, during the 1990s, there were Angels in America and Rent.
But, during the hippie era, there were productions like Macbird and anti-Establishment troupes like The Committee in New York and SF, Second City in Chicago and Toronto and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, as well as the great Bread and Puppets street theater, regulars at antiwar demonstrations, then and now, and still going strong.
But the production that captured the imagination of Middle America during the 1960s was Hair. It opened off-Broadway in 1967 and ran for several years in productions around the world and spawned a slew of Top 40 hits that you couldn’t have escaped if you’d wanted to: “Easy to Be Hard” (covered by Three Dog Night), “Good Morning Starshine” (Oliver), “Hair” (The Cowsills), and this one, which was number 1 in U.S. for six weeks in 1969, as recorded by the 5th Dimension:
“Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” – The 5th Dimension:
It may seem to young people today like a flattering myth created by a bunch of boomers, but people really did believe it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. They may not have believed it was caused by the moon being in the Seventh House or Jupiter being aligned with Mars, but SOMETHING was in the air besides tear gas, pollution and BO. Hair, the musical, and the Top 40 hits it spawned, put words and music on whatever “IT” was. Hair contributed to the soundtrack of the era, a treasure trove we only now seem to appreciate, given the wasteland of today’s pop music.
Hair captured a moment in time, like lightning in a bottle, and held it up for EVERYONE to see and marvel at.
Nearly everyone over a certain age knows the songs in Hair. They’re as much a part of the national DNA as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Old Man River.” It seems strange to say that now, having lived through that time and remembering as I do how controversial the musical was when it first burst on the scene.
Precisely because the songs are so familiar, it may be easy, 50 years after Hair opened off-Broadway, to miss the simple profundity of these words, just as it’s easy to dismiss Hair as a period piece, a slice of day-glo fluff from the hippie era. But there’s a reason it ran for 1,741 consecutive performances and four years on Broadway. And for 1,997 consecutive shows and five years in London. Not to mention the similarly long-running productions in France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Sweden and Israel. The strength of Hair was that it was not ever intended to “preach to the choir,” to be a play about hippies (aka “The Tribe”) for hippies. It was just capturing a moment in time, like lightning in a bottle, and holding it up for everyone to see and marvel at. It’s also a New York City play, an East Coast play, not a Haight Ashbury play. It had some raw edges and some dark corners and lots of chutzpah, no hippie dippy passivity. It’s not panhandling for spare change or passing out in the park. It’s got chutzpah and attitude.
As the liner notes from the original 1967 Off-Broadway cast album put it, “The sparkle and exuberance of Hair make it a hip descendant of such traditional American musicals as Oklahoma! and West Side Story. But this is an entirely new scene…It is less a structured play than a Happening, a musical Be-In with bells, beads, incense, flowers, wild costume and fantastic turned-on dreams.”
The plot of Hair is simple, like Oklahoma! and West Side Story. As the liner notes summed it up, “Berger is kicked out of school, Sheila, who makes protest posters, loves Berger: Jeannie loves Claude. Claude, who gets drafted, loves Sheila. Claude and Sheila make it together.”
“Frank Mills” – Annie Golden performing live, 2004:
The story was written by two unemployed 20-something actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who lived in the East Village, a place filled with long-haired boys dodging the draft and the hippie girls who loved them. Just as Jonathan Larson drew on his own apartment-life experiences to write Rent, Ragni and Rado drew directly from the excitement on the streets of their neighborhood. They even recruited performers from their neighborhood for the earliest productions of the show, and they performed in early productions of Hair. The play itself was developed off-Broadway in a workshop of the Open Theater, an experimental group that had also spawned other shows like America Hurrah and Viet Rock. However, there’s a reason why these latter two are now forgotten and Hair lives on.
The strength of Hair was that it was not ever intended to “preach to the choir,”…. It was just capturing a moment in time, like lightning in a bottle, and holding it up for everyone to see and marvel at.
I like to think that Ragni and Rado, being longtime residents of the Village, were occasionally drawn to the folk music scene, the bars and coffee shops there, not to mention Washington Square Park, where some of America’s great, unheralded songwriters gathered. If they did, they would have run into a singer from Danbury, Connecticut going by the name Dino Valenti. His real name was Chester “Chet” Powers, but he’d been busted for pot, spent time in prison, and performed songs under this assumed name at East Village venues like the Cock ‘n’ Bull and Café Wah? and was close friends with Richie Havens. One of the songs he wrote and was playing as early as 1963 would become as much a part of the hippie DNA as any of the songs in Hair. It’s completely conceivable that Ragni and Rado would have, out of osmosis even, absorbed its spirit, which was in the air.
Dino Valenti – “Let’s Get Together”
Like Chet Powers, Ragni and Rado were hustling up any break, and any gig, they could find. In Powers case, it didn’t work out so well. Desperate for cash, he sold the rights to “Get Together” to the manager of the Kingston Trio for $100 and never saw another dime from the song, which became as much an anthem of the times as “Aquarius” or “Good Morning, Starshine.” He did, at least, get a gig as lead singer of Quicksilver Messenger Service. (More about Dino’s songs here) At any rate, with equal desperation, Ragni and Rado took their fledgling show in early 1967 to Joseph Papp, the impresario of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He said he’d stage a production in his new Public Theater if they came up with a musical score that he liked. Enter Galt McDermot, a Canadian expat who was anything but a hippie. McDermot, who’d already won a Grammy for previous work, expanded the score to create a Broadway musical out of the original stripped-down version of Hair.
Papp booked them off-Broadway, at the Public Theater on their home turf of the East Village, on Oct. 17, 1967, initially for 15 previews and 50 performances, with Ragni playing Berger. It was moved to Cheetah, a discoteque uptown for 45 performances in December 1967. The word of mouth grew, and so did the need for a larger venue, bigger stage and production. Before heading to Broadway, the musical was retooled by Ragni and Rado, and McDermot added 13 new songs. Most controversially, a nude scene was added, inspired by an antiwar rally in Central Park that Ragni and Rado had attended where protesters stripped.
Backing up a bit, what else do you think was in the air that summer to set the stage, so to speak, for Hair’s long, uninterrupted stage run? Perhaps this song will give you clue:
“San Francisco (Put Flowers In Your Hair)” – Scott McKenzie (written by John Phillips):
The refurbished Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater on April 29, 1968. It would run for more than four years, ending on July 1, 1972, after 1,742 performances. Right out of the gate, Hair was controversial not just because of the nude scene, but because it realistically portrayed drug use and was staunchly if not militantly antiwar. Nonetheless—or perhaps because of the nude scene—Clive Barnes raved about Hair in the New York Times, calling it “the frankest show in town.” Without this rave, it would have still found an audience, just not so quickly because it touched something in the zeitgeist, hit a raw nerve, struck a chord.
The original production of Hair opened with Berger cutting a piece of Claude’s hair and then with Sheila burning it on a grill as a sort of sacrifice. Claude has been drafted and is likely headed for Vietnam, where (by late 1967), 20,000 American soldiers had already been killed and the casualty totals were a regular feature on the Nightly News with Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite. This scene, with its echoes of Samson and Delilah, underscores the sacrifice of soldiers to a war that was unpopular and the goal of which was never made clear. Berger, desperate for Sheila’s attention, strips to his skivvies, swings like Tarzan over the audience and sings “Donna”. This sets the tone for a wild production of entrances and exits, sometimes both simultaneously, a cacophony of voices representing the spirit of the times. Audience members were even invited on stage for the “Be In” finale.
There are many more songs in Hair than most musicals (33 songs ended up in the original Broadway production, some less than a minute in length). The title song is performed after a tourist in the East Village asks Claude and Berger, “Why the long hair?”
And they sing:
“She asks me why, I’m just a hairy guy
I’m hairy noon and night, hair that’s a fright
I’m hairy high and low, don’t ask me why, don’t know
It’s not for lack of bread, like the Greatful Dead, darlin’
Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy”
It goes on like this for a few verses and then throws a hidden punch at the end, with the best and most succinct summation of the Generation Gap of that era: Hair, flow it, show it
Long as God can grow, my hair
Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees
Give a home to the fleas, in my hair
A home for fleas, a hive for the buzzing bees
A nest for birds, there ain’t no words
For the beauty, splendor, the wonder of my hair
I want long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka dotted, twisted, beaded, braided
Powered, flowered and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled and spahettied
Oh say, can you see my eyes if you can
Then my hair’s too short
Down with here, down to there
Down till there, down to where it’s stuck by itself
They’ll be ga-ga at the go-go, when they see me in my toga
My toga made of blond, brilliantined, biblical hair
My hair like Jesus wore it, Hallelujah I adore it
Hallelujah Mary loved her son, why don’t my mother love me?
“Hair” – interpreted by The Cowsills:
Even if you did not see the stage production, you were familiar with the songs through cover versions that became hit singles, including the above-mentioned “Easy to be Hard” (Three Dog Night) and “Good Morning Starshine” (Oliver).
I’ve watched and listened to other Sixties staples like Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and O Calcutta! And none hold up as well as Hair. This production was updated by co-creator James Rado for any of the most recent national revivals the stage production. Rado turns 89 on Jan. 23 (the same birthday as my late beloved mom). Gerome Ragni died in 1991, but I would like to think he would approve of the continued life and resonance of Hair.
“Easy to Be Hard” – Lynn Kellogg, Hair [the original female lead of Sheila in the Broadway cast, Kellogg died in November of COVID-19]