Radical Musical Opens on Broadway

Hair liberated Broadway from traditional musical comedy conventions and introduced new music, new themes, and radical lifestyles to the American musical stage. Shocking audiences with its seminudity and actors who violated the “fourth wall” by entering the audience’s space, many of its theatrical departures would themselves later become conventional.

Summary of Event

“The uniqueness of Hair,” declared critic Martin Gottfried, “proves just how backward Broadway really is.” The controversial Broadway production, which mesmerized audiences with the authenticity of its presentation of the counterculture of the 1960’s and which became a popular and international success, resulted from a number of fortuitous circumstances. Hair (Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot)
United States;counterculture
Musical theater
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
[kw]Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway (Apr. 29, 1968)
[kw]Musical Hair Opens on Broadway, Radical (Apr. 29, 1968)
[kw]Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway (Apr. 29, 1968)
[kw]Hair Opens on Broadway, Radical Musical (Apr. 29, 1968)
[kw]Broadway, Radical Musical Hair Opens on (Apr. 29, 1968)
Hair (Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot)
United States;counterculture
Musical theater
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
[g]North America;Apr. 29, 1968: Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway[09760]
[g]United States;Apr. 29, 1968: Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway[09760]
[c]Theater;Apr. 29, 1968: Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway[09760]
[c]Music;Apr. 29, 1968: Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway[09760]
[c]Dance;Apr. 29, 1968: Radical Musical Hair Opens on Broadway[09760]
Ragni, Gerome
Rado, James
MacDermot, Galt
O’Horgan, Tom
Butler, Michael

Hair, subtitled “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” originated with Gerome Ragni and James Rado, both actors, who talked about collaborating on a musical while appearing together in a Chicago production of The Knack in 1965. Ragni’s experience was as an actor in the Off-Off-Broadway experimental theater; Rado had written musical revues and aspired to a composing career.

The youth culture of the 1960’s, the “hippies,” whose badge of membership was long hair, espoused ideals of freedom, love, and brotherhood, and became increasingly antiestablishment, anti-Vietnam War, and anti-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although not part of the hippie society, Ragni and Rado shared the antiwar sentiments and saw the possibility of transforming some of the counterculture’s idealism into theater.

To amass material, the authors observed gatherings of East Village hippies and developed a script, which was unanimously rejected by mainstream producers. Fortunately, on a train back from New Haven, Ragni encountered Joseph Papp Papp, Joseph , producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who was seeking a production to open his newly renovated Public Theater. Papp agreed to produce Hair for a limited run, provided a composer was enlisted for the project. A fortunate choice was made in the selection of Galt MacDermot, a Canadian educated in South Africa who drew upon his knowledge of African rhythms as well as his formal musical education to compose what many critics acknowledged as a superb score.

The Broadway opening of Hair on April 29, 1968, was preceded by two trial runs. The first, eight weeks at Papp’s Public Theater, was mildly successful with a middle-aged audience and then closed. Again by chance, Michael Butler, the son of a wealthy Chicago family, attended a performance at the Public Theater under the mistaken assumption that the musical was written by or about American Indians (he was concerned about the mistreatment of Native Americans), and he opted to produce the show for a second run at the Cheetah, a discotheque in the Times Square area. The new production was more successful with a younger audience but was a commercial disaster. The choice facing the management was to move to Broadway or to close for good.

The decision was made to move to Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre, and Tom O’Horgan, a colleague of the authors from the La Mama Company, was brought in to direct. The authors rewrote the book, the composer added thirteen new songs, a new choreographer joined the company, the director recast and restaged, and the show’s emphasis shifted from a virulent antiwar theme to a celebration of the tribal nature of the hippie culture.

Critics later decided that Hair was a “concept” musical; that is, that ideas rather than story predominate. The characters include Claude, a young man who receives his draft notice; his friend Berger, a high school dropout who refuses to go to war; and Sheila, an antiwar activist college student. The rest of the “tribe” include Jeanie, a pregnant, somewhat mystical girl; Hud, a black hippie; Woof, a gay hippie; and a polyglot assortment of racial and ethnic young people. The virtually nonexistent plot concerns whether Claude will honor his draft notice or find another solution. At length, he joins the Army and is killed in Vietnam, and the tribe mourns his demise.

The music and creative staging lifted the show above its banal book and provided the controversy that surrounded the show throughout its many productions. The opening brings the cast through the audience onto the stage in slow, ritualistic movements. As Claude squats before a small fire, Sheila and Berger cut a lock of his hair and offer it to the fire. The lyrical “Age of Aquarius,” promising the dawn of an era of harmony and understanding, is sung. Other numbers take note of environmental pollution, the breakdown of language, the benefits of drugs, and the obsolescence of parents. “Don’t Put It Down,” a paean to the American flag proclaimed by three cast members, was found offensive by some members of the audience.

At the end of the first act, the sound of bells is heard offstage, and cast members bearing candles enter through the audience for a “be-in.” As Claude contemplates the significance of not burning his draft card, the tribe crawls under a scrim spread out across the stage; the song finishes, and cast members appear, naked and motionless in a projection of light. The tableau is shattered by two policemen entering from the lobby who announce that the audience is under arrest for watching an obscene show.

The second act contains Claude’s hallucinogenic trip through American history, emphasizing the absurdity of war and culminating in the ironic “What a Piece of Work Is Man,” with lyrics by William Shakespeare. Sheila sings the wistful “Good Morning Starshine,” which is followed by the tribe’s awareness of Claude’s unnecessary death. The production ends with “Let the Sun Shine In” and with an invitation to the audience to participate in a final dance. Frenetically paced, through the earnestness and energy of the young cast, the show celebrates both the fallibility and the nobility of humankind.


Although the Broadway production of Hair was not universally acclaimed by the critics, several of whom pointed to its amateurishness and messiness and all of whom noted the obscurity of the book, most agreed that it was an engaging show despite its flaws. They found it “likable” and “unassuming, even in its pretensions,” and they praised the score, “rich in melody” and with a “thoroughly contemporary musical sound.” Further, as Gerald Bordman declared, “In every respect—commercial, historic, esthetic—it was far and away the most important musical of the season.”

Commercially, the Broadway production was only the beginning of Hair’s success. Including the Public and Cheetah engagements, Hair played 1,844 performances in New York. Companies followed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, with appropriate local alterations to the book. Bernard Castelli, one of the coproducers, opened companies abroad in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere, playing in fourteen different languages. The London Hair ran for 1,997 performances. The backers of the show were repaid many times over.

Historically, Hair seemed to break the mold of the traditional Broadway musical, which was geared to middle-aged, middle-class taste. Audiences expected costumed, tuneful, apolitical productions that reinforced their own lifestyles and values. They did not expect the torrent of sound, the irreverent characters, the obscene language, and the rock music that greeted them at the Biltmore. Perhaps it was the television critics, who raved about the show, perhaps it was the titillating prospect of viewing nudity, perhaps it was the emotional opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War, or perhaps it was the show’s message of peace, love, and equality that drew audiences, both young and old, to the Biltmore for four years.

Clive Barnes of The New York Times remarked that Hair is “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.” Nevertheless, Hair did not, as some hoped, usher in a new era of musical theater that married musical comedy with rock music; Hair had a rock sound, but it was arguably not a rock musical. Although orchestrated for a rock band consisting of two guitars, a bass, and a keyboard, individual numbers were written in a variety of styles, from rock to country. With the exception of the writers of Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Godspell (1971), most later rock composers chose to pursue the rock concert, rather than the Broadway musical, as their primary live venue. Nor was Hair’s structure new. The concept musical, with an unconnected, episodic plot revolving around a message, was in actuality an old form.

Nevertheless, Hair’s impact was considerable, in the theater and out of it. Hair liberated staging, subject matter, and language for productions that followed. In rehearsals, O’Horgan exhorted the tribe to “love the audience” and thus brought actors and audience together in close physical contact. Actors swung on ropes over the audience’s heads, sat in their laps, talked to them in the lobby, and were sometimes indistinguishable from ticket holders, as casual dress style invaded middle-class culture.

Subject matter in the theater was another area expanded by Hair. Protest against the Vietnam War had climaxed when the show opened and had less pertinence through the run. Other issues, though, were current; the effects of marijuana and heroin were displayed, sexual freedom was encouraged, homosexuality was accepted, and racism was strongly protested. These were subjects played previously only in the experimental theaters.

Words concerning particular sexual acts, which some found offensive and unnecessary, were included liberally in songs such as “Sodomy” and in dialogue, the point being that language had lost its power through the doublespeak of the political establishment. After Hair, no subject or word was taboo in the theater.

Hair, rather surprisingly, influenced fashion. It brought attention to the dress of the hippies, to the long hair, beads, fringe, and loose clothing—which, above all, were comfortable and inexpensive. Lorrie Davis, a member of the cast, declared, “What Hair did to the fashion industry is history: it put blue jeans on the Establishment.” It also helped put them on every college student in the country (and they were no longer inexpensive).

Hair brought new and younger audiences into the theater; the show spoke to them with its opposition to the draft, the work ethic, and the lifestyles of their parents. Further, the show’s sound was contemporary and exciting.

Perhaps most important, Hair struck a blow for the right of free expression. The appearance of the cast in full frontal nudity at the end of the first act was highly controversial and outraged many people. Two cases eventually went before the Supreme Court involving communities that wished to ban productions of Hair. A Boston district attorney objected to the nudity and to what he considered flag desecration, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, authorities were repelled simply by the production’s reputation. In both instances, the Court ruled in favor of the show’s producers.

Hair was a milestone in the theater in what it said and in how it said it. It was very much a product of its time; the flower children and their hippie friends vanished into suburbia within the next few years. A 1977 revival of the show was not successful; a 1979 motion-picture version was deplored by the authors. Still, so long as there is a younger generation that rebels against its elders and so long as peace, love, and understanding do not rule the world, Hair has relevance. Hair (Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot)
United States;counterculture
Musical theater
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading

  • Davis, Lorrie, with Rachel Gallagher. Letting Down My Hair: Two Years with the Love Rock Tribe—From Dawning to Downing of Aquarius. New York: Arthur Fields Books, 1973. A cast member’s unvarnished account of the rehearsal period and two years of the run of Hair. Apparently embittered by the commercial emphasis of the production, Davis provides an insider’s view of backstage behavior, complete with drugs, sex, and conflicts with the management. Photographs.
  • Goldman, William. “Brave New World.” In The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. A biting discussion of Hair’s journey from the Public Theater to Broadway, with a spate of negative quotations from other critics. Now a classic, the book places Hair in the context of other productions of the 1968 season. A valuable perspective. With index.
  • Gottfried, Martin. “Hair” and “What’s New.” In Opening Nights: Theater Criticism of the Sixties. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969. The first article gives an unflattering review of the Broadway production, faulting the direction, the choreography, and the lack of a book. Gottfried acknowledges the value of the rock music and the uniqueness of the show. The second piece discusses Hair’s hippie perspective. Index.
  • Horn, Barbara Lee. The Age of “Hair”: Evolution and Impact of Broadway’s First Rock Musical. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Far and away the most thorough discussion of the evolution and significance of Hair. The book was developed through interviews with many of those involved with the show’s creation. Contains cast lists from the Public Theater and the Biltmore productions, an index, and an excellent bibliography.
  • LoMonaco, Martha S. “Teetering at the Margins: The Evolution of Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” In Theatre at the Margins: The Political, the Popular, the Personal, the Profane, edited by John W. Frick. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000. Emphasizes the marginal aspect of Hair and its performance on Broadway as the emergence of a peripheral subculture at one of the centers of American cultural production. Bibliographic references.
  • Richards, Stanley, ed. Great Rock Musicals. New York: Stein & Day, 1979. Contains the complete scripts of eight rock musicals, including Hair. Richards provides editorial notes, cast and staff lists, notes on musical numbers, and photographs. A good starting point.
  • Warfield, Scott. “From Hair to Rent: Is ’Rock’ a Four-Letter Word on Broadway?” In The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, edited by William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Places Hair as the first major rock musical and traces the history of the form over the subsequent three decades. Bibliographic references and index.

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