Hair and the Rock Musical

Hair poster

One of the most ubiquitous images of the late-sixties and early seventies was the orange, green, and yellow psychedelic poster for the musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. I was too young to actually know what Hair was about. All I knew was that it was something big and that it was very controversial. What I didn’t know at the time was that several songs that I was familiar with as radio staples were from that production, having all debuted in 1969, the year following Hair's Broadway debut. Three Dog Night took “Easy to Be Hard” to number four, Oliver pushed “Good Morning Starshine” to number three, The Cowsills shot to number two with “Hair,” and The Fifth Dimension enjoyed a six-week stay at number one with the medley “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

Hair was conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who had met while appearing in a short-lived off-Broadway play in 1964. To help fill time between acting gigs, they decided to write a play that would try to capture the growing counter-culture movement of the sixties. Later, they were introduced to composer Galt McDermott, who set their words to music. Hair originally opened off-Broadway as the debut production of Joseph Papp's Public Theater on October 17, 1967. After a six-week run there, Papp and new co-producer Michael Butler moved it to The Cheetah, a discothèque located on 53rd and Broadway, for 45 performances starting December 22. Following that second off-Broadway run, Hair had a hiatus during which it was thoroughly revised, including the addition of 13 new songs and the introduction of nudity.

When Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968 it became the first rock musical to play The Great White Way, and very possibly the first to play anywhere. Its loose tale of a “tribe” of young hippies touched on numerous topics that were still considered taboo by the majority of the American populace:  anti-Vietnam War stance, Hair DVDrecreational drug use, sexual freedom, religious irreverence, and environmentalism. Much of the stagecraft was experimental (a spare, gray set scrawled with graffiti, overly stylized hippie costuming, “psychedelic” lighting) and the acting was unconventional, using improvisational techniques and repeatedly breaking the “fourth wall.” Most of all, it had exuberant music: edgy lyrics and captivating melodies. The result was a work that defied nearly every musical and theatrical convention – and it was a sensation. Curious crowds quickly made it Broadway’s biggest hit.

Butler, a Chicago businessman, was a vocal oppIonent of the Vietnam War who was considering a run for the U.S. Senate on an anti-war platform at the time he stumbled onto the Public Theater version of Hair. He soon gave up his political aspirations and instead used the musical to further his anti-war agenda. The Broadway run of Hair lasted an impressive 1,750 performances, though its longevity was no doubt diminished by its success elsewhere. Butler licensed productions in virtually every major U.S. city. At one point, concurrently-running versions were playing in nine American cities, while national touring companies simultaneously crisscrossed the country. The staging of Hair in London’s West End ran an equally astonishing 1,997 performances. The creators continued to write additional songs that made their way into various versions playing throughout North America and the world. Many of the regional U.S. and international versions were even tailored with topical and/or local references to appeal to their specific audiences.

In the meantime, dozens of cast albums were recorded, with the original Broadway cast album becoming a multi-platinum smash and a Grammy winner for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album. In addition to those mentioned above, literally hundreds of other cover recordings were made by popular musicians ranging from Barbra Streisand to Sérgio Mendes. Between the licensing of the many productions and the music royalties, all of the principals involved in the show became wealthy. Subsequent revivals have continued to thrust the musical back into the public eye.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how much effect Hair actually had on turning national sentiment against the Vietnam War, as there were many factors, but it’s safe to say that it was a contributing cause.  By the time master filmmaker Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) adapted Hair for cinema screens in 1979, the show’s moment had passed, and the movie was only a marginal success. To this day, however, the stage version continues to be regarded as one of the best artistic works to depict the mood of the radical sixties.

Hair’s success, naturally, spawned a wave of rock musicals hoping for similar fortunes. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, The Rocky Horror Show, The Wiz, and Evita were all launched in the early to mid-seventies and attained Hair New Albumconsiderable popularity, either on Broadway, the West End, or both. In fact, many theatre critics of the time predicted that rock music would be the norm for stage musicals going forward.  That, however, did not prove to be the case. After an initial flood of productions, rock musicals slowed to a trickle by the latter part of the decade, with none attaining the massive success of the aforementioned titles.

The eighties and nineties produced a few very notable rock musicals – Little Shop of Horrors, Chess, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, and Rent, but those were exceptions. Audiences were increasingly turning to gargantuan productions featuring more traditional, pop-oriented musical fare, such as 42nd Street, La Cage aux Folles, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, The Lion King, and Jekyll & Hyde.

In more recent years, rock musicals written expressly for the stage have become a great rarity. Generally, rock musicals are now adapted from pre-existing works. These so-called “jukebox” musicals have been popular with audiences, perhaps only because the tunes are already proven hits. Examples include Tommy (by The Who’s Pete Townshend), Smokey Joe's Café (by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and their collaborators), Jersey Boys (by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), Rock of Ages (featuring hits of eighties arena rockers), and American Idiot (by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong).

It’s impossible to predict how long these jukebox musicals will remain popular, but it’s interesting to note that as far as rock music is concerned, Broadway appears content to continue looking to the past, rather than at the present. The legacy of Hair – an incredibly bold statement about America’s youth during a highly contentious time in our nation’s history – has been cast aside by Broadway in favor of the tried and true, and safe.

If you love stage or film musicals, as well as movie soundtracks, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of titles available. They are conveniently grouped together in the Show Tunes section of the CDs.

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