Sunday October 17, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Hair
On this Day:
In 1967, the musical “Hair” premiered on Broadway.
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is a rock musical with a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. The work reflects the creators’ observations of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the late 1960s, and several of its songs became anthems of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement. The musical’s profanity, its depiction of the use of illegal drugs, its treatment of sexuality, its irreverence for the American flag, and its nude scene caused much comment and controversy. The musical broke new ground in musical theatre by defining the genre of “rock musical”, using a racially integrated cast, and inviting the audience onstage for a “Be-In” finale.
Hair tells the story of the “tribe”, a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. Claude, his good friend Berger, their roommate Sheila and their friends struggle to balance their young lives, loves, and the sexual revolution with their rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society. Ultimately, Claude must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done, or to succumb to the pressures of his parents (and conservative America) to serve in Vietnam, compromising his pacifist principles and risking his life.
After an off-Broadway debut on October 17, 1967, at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and a subsequent run at the Cheetah nightclub from December 1967 through January 1968, the show opened on Broadway in April 1968 and ran for 1,750 performances. Simultaneous productions in cities across the United States and Europe followed shortly thereafter, including a successful London production that ran for 1,997 performances. Since then, numerous productions have been staged around the world, spawning dozens of recordings of the musical, including the 3 million-selling original Broadway cast recording. Some of the songs from its score became Top 10 hits, and a feature film adaptation was released in 1979. A Broadway revival opened in 2009, earning strong reviews and winning the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Musical. In 2008, Time wrote, “Today Hair seems, if anything, more daring than ever.”
Hair was conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni. The two met in 1964 when they performed together in the Off-Broadway flop Hang Down Your Head and Die, and they began writing Hair together in late 1964. The main characters were autobiographical, with Rado’s Claude being a pensive romantic and Ragni’s Berger an extrovert. Their close relationship, including its volatility, was reflected in the musical. Rado explained, “We were great friends. It was a passionate kind of relationship that we directed into creativity, into writing, into creating this piece. We put the drama between us on stage.”
Rado described the inspiration for Hair as “a combination of some characters we met in the streets, people we knew and our own imaginations. We knew this group of kids in the East Village who were dropping out and dodging the draft, and there were also lots of articles in the press about how kids were being kicked out of school for growing their hair long”. He recalled, “There was so much excitement in the streets and the parks and the hippie areas, and we thought if we could transmit this excitement to the stage it would be wonderful. … We hung out with them and went to their Be-Ins [and] let our hair grow.” Many cast members (Shelley Plimpton in particular) were recruited right off the street. Rado said, “It was very important historically, and if we hadn’t written it, there’d not be any examples. You could read about it and see film clips, but you’d never experience it. We thought, ‘This is happening in the streets’, and we wanted to bring it to the stage.”
Rado and Ragni came from different artistic backgrounds. In college, Rado wrote musical revues and aspired to be a Broadway composer in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. He went on to study acting with Lee Strasberg. Ragni, on the other hand, was an active member of The Open Theater, one of several groups, mostly Off-off Broadway, that were developing experimental theatre techniques. He introduced Rado to the modern theatre styles and methods being developed at The Open Theater. In 1966, while the two were developing Hair, Ragni performed in The Open Theater’s production of Megan Terry’s play, Viet Rock, a story about young men being deployed to the Vietnam War. In addition to the war theme, Viet Rock employed the improvisational exercises being used in the experimental theatre scene and later used in the development of Hair.
Rado and Ragni brought their drafts of the show to producer Eric Blau who, through common friend Nat Shapiro, connected the two with Canadian composer Galt MacDermot. MacDermot had won a Grammy Award in 1961 for his composition “African Waltz” (recorded by Cannonball Adderley). The composer’s lifestyle was in marked contrast to his co-creators: “I had short hair, a wife, and, at that point, four children, and I lived on Staten Island.” “I never even heard of a hippie when I met Rado and Ragni.” But he shared their enthusiasm to do a rock and roll show. “We work independently”, explained MacDermot in May 1968. “I prefer it that way. They hand me the material. I set it to music.” MacDermot wrote the first score in three weeks, starting with the songs “I Got Life”, “Ain’t Got No”, “Where Do I Go” and the title song. He first wrote “Aquarius” as an unconventional art piece, but later rewrote it into an uplifting anthem.
Hair explores many of the themes of the hippie movement of the 1960s. Theatre writer Scott Miller described these as follows:
[T]he youth of America, especially those on college campuses, started protesting all the things that they saw wrong with America: racism, environmental destruction, poverty, sexism and sexual repression, violence at home and the war in Vietnam, depersonalization from new technologies, and corruption in politics. … Contrary to popular opinion, the hippies had great respect for America and believed that they were the true patriots, the only ones who genuinely wanted to save our country and make it the best it could be once again. … [Long] hair was the hippies’ flag – their … symbol not only of rebellion but also of new possibilities, a symbol of the rejection of discrimination and restrictive gender roles (a philosophy celebrated in the song “My Conviction”). It symbolized equality between men and women. … [T]he hippies’ chosen clothing also made statements. Drab work clothes (jeans, work shirts, pea coats) were a rejection of materialism. Clothing from other cultures, particularly the Third World and native Americans, represented their awareness of the global community and their rejection of U.S. imperialism and selfishness. Simple cotton dresses and other natural fabrics were a rejection of synthetics, a return to natural things and simpler times. Some hippies wore old World War II or Civil War jackets as way of co-opting the symbols of war into their newfound philosophy of nonviolence.
After studying the music of the Bantu at Cape Town University, MacDermot incorporated African rhythms into the score of Hair. He listened to “what [the Bantu] called quaylas … [which have a] very characteristic beat, very similar to rock. Much deeper though. … Hair is very African – a lot of [the] rhythms, not the tunes so much.” Quaylas stress beats on unexpected syllables, and this influence can be heard in songs like “What a Piece of Work Is Man” and “Ain’t Got No Grass”. MacDermot said, “My idea was to make a total funk show. They said they wanted rock & roll – but to me that translated to ‘funk.'” That funk is evident throughout the score, notably in songs like “Colored Spade” and “Walking in Space”.
MacDermot has claimed that the songs “can’t all be the same. You’ve got to get different styles. … I like to think they’re all a little different.” As such, the music in Hair runs the gamut of rock: from the rockabilly sensibilities of “Don’t Put it Down” to the folk rock rhythms of “Frank Mills” and “What a Piece of Work is Man”. “Easy to Be Hard” is pure rhythm and blues, and protest rock anthems abound: “Ain’t Got No” and “The Flesh Failures”. The acid rock of “Walking in Space” and “Aquarius” are balanced by the mainstream pop of “Good Morning Starshine”. Scott Miller ties the music of Hair to the hippies’ political themes: “The hippies … were determined to create art of the people and their chosen art form, rock/folk music was by its definition, populist. … [T]he hippies’ music was often very angry, its anger directed at those who would prostitute the Constitution, who would sell America out, who would betray what America stood for; in other words, directed at their parents and the government.” Theatre historian John Kenrick explains the application of rock music to the medium of the stage:
The same hard rock sound that had conquered the world of popular music made its way to the musical stage with two simultaneous hits – Your Own Thing [and] Hair. … This explosion of revolutionary proclamations, profanity and hard rock shook the musical theatre to its roots. … Most people in the theatre business were unwilling to look on Hair as anything more than a noisy accident. Tony voters tried to ignore Hair’s importance, shutting it out from any honors. However, some now insisted it was time for a change. New York Times critic Clive Barnes gushed that Hair was “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.
The music did not resonate with everyone. Leonard Bernstein remarked “the songs are just laundry lists” and walked out of the production. Richard Rodgers could only hear the beat and called it “one-third music”. John Fogerty said, “Hair is such a watered down version of what is really going on that I can’t get behind it at all.” Gene Lees, writing for High Fidelity, stated that John Lennon found it “dull”, and he wrote, “I do not know any musician who thinks it’s good.”
Reception to Hair upon its Broadway premiere was, with exceptions, overwhelmingly positive. Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times: “What is so likable about Hair … ? I think it is simply that it is so likable. So new, so fresh, and so unassuming, even in its pretensions.” John J. O’Connor of The Wall Street Journal said the show was “exuberantly defiant and the production explodes into every nook and cranny of the Biltmore Theater”. Richard Watts Jr. of the New York Post wrote that “it has a surprising if perhaps unintentional charm, its high spirits are contagious, and its young zestfulness makes it difficult to resist.”
Television reviews were even more enthusiastic. Allan Jeffreys of ABC said the actors were “the most talented hippies you’ll ever see … directed in a wonderfully wild fashion by Tom O’Horgan.” Leonard Probst of NBC said “Hair is the only new concept in musicals on Broadway in years and it’s more fun than any other this season”. John Wingate of WOR TV praised MacDermot’s “dynamic score” that “blasts and soars”, and Len Harris of CBS said “I’ve finally found the best musical of the Broadway season … it’s that sloppy, vulgar, terrific tribal love rock musical Hair.”
A reviewer from Variety, on the other hand, called the show “loony” and “without a story, form, music, dancing, beauty or artistry. … It’s impossible to tell whether [the cast has] talent. Maybe talent is irrelevant in this new kind of show business.” Reviews in the news weeklies were mixed; Jack Kroll in Newsweek wrote, “There is no denying the sheer kinetic drive of this new Hair … there is something hard, grabby, slightly corrupt about O’Horgan’s virtuosity, like Busby Berkeley gone bitchy.” But a reviewer from Time wrote that although the show “thrums with vitality [it is] crippled by being a bookless musical and, like a boneless fish, it drifts when it should swim.”
Reviews were mixed when Hair opened in London. Irving Wardle in The Times wrote, “Its honesty and passion give it the quality of a true theatrical celebration – the joyous sound of a group of people telling the world exactly what they feel.” In the Financial Times, B. A. Young agreed that Hair was “not only a wildly enjoyable evening, but a thoroughly moral one.” However, in his final review before retiring after 48 years, 78-year-old W. A. Darlington of The Daily Telegraph wrote that he had “tried hard”, but found the evening “a complete bore – noisy, ugly and quite desperately funny”.
Acknowledging the show’s critics, Scott Miller wrote in 2001 that “some people can’t see past the appearance of chaos and randomness to the brilliant construction and sophisticated imagery underneath.” Miller notes, “Not only did many of the lyrics not rhyme, but many of the songs didn’t really have endings, just a slowing down and stopping, so the audience didn’t know when to applaud. … The show rejected every convention of Broadway, of traditional theatre in general, and of the American musical in specific. And it was brilliant.” (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
We decided to name our new-age church “Hairway to Heaven”…
Second, a Song:
Hair is a 1979 American musical anti-war comedy-drama film based on the 1968 Broadway musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical about a Vietnam War draftee who meets and befriends a “tribe” of hippies on his way to the army induction center. The hippies introduce him to marijuana, LSD and their environment of unorthodox relationships and draft evasion.
The film was directed by Miloš Forman (who was nominated for a César Award for his work on the film) and adapted for the screen by Michael Weller (who would collaborate with Forman on a second picture, Ragtime, two years later). Cast members include John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright, Don Dacus, Cheryl Barnes and Ronnie Dyson. Dance scenes were choreographed by Twyla Tharp, and were performed by the Tharp’s dancers. The film was nominated for two Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture (for Williams).
“The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”, was the closing song from the 1967 musical Hair. Here is the clip from the movie Hair set to “Let the Sunshine In”. It is a very powerful and moving closing scene and I hope you enjoy this.
Thought for the Day:
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” – Khalil Gibran
Further to the Indoor Plumbing Smile, Sandy Weames of Campbell River, BC, Canada writes:
“Love the Pipe guy
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky