'Hair:' Letting The Sun Shine In On The Late '60s


THE 23RD ANNUAL TONY AWARDS: BROADWAY '69 -- Pictured: (l-r) Best Musicial Nominee for 'Hair' actor Erroll Booker, producer Alexander H. Cohen, actress Martha Velez as Sheila -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

The rock musical Hair, which was first performed in 1967 and opened on Broadway in 1968, almost serves as a time capsule for the culture of the late 60s. Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical (to use its full title) was incredibly controversial due to its music, references to sex and drugs, and moral introspection regarding draft dodging. Because of these artistic choices, Hair seemed to divide the audience when they saw it, but their choice to add a scene with the cast completely nude on stage became a driving force for free publicity as well as outrage.

'Hair' Characters Were Inspired By Real People

A still from the 'Hair' movie, 1979. Source: Pinterest

Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who wrote the book and lyrics for Hair, mentioned that this play was inspired by “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.”

'Hair' Was Not An Immediate Hit -- With Critics

The Original Broadway Poster

The duo worked hard on this production for three years. They were able to publish a book and write the screenplay, and in 1967 they had its first Off-Broadway production. In the first six weeks of shows, critics did not like it, but audiences did. Despite audience approval there did not seem to be much of a future for this rock musical; however, this changed after Michael Butler saw the performance and decided to fund it so it could get onto Broadway, at the famous discotheque Cheetah. At Cheetah it exploded and ran for 45 more performances.

'Hair's Original Ending Was Changed

Cover art for the original cast recording of the London production of 'Hair,' 1969. Source: Amazon.com

Now that the public loved Hair, a full Broadway production was in the works. This was no small endeavor, the performance needed a massive revision to better suit mainstream audience tastes. The off-Broadway performance originally featured Claude, one of the leads, as an alien from outer space. This was deemed too eccentric and Claude was changed to be human, like the rest of the cast. The ending of the musical was also changed to lighten up the mood, and an entire 13 new songs were written. Despite all these changes Hair held true to itself, and broke many Broadway traditions.

'Hair' Neglects The Darkness Of The Late '60s

The Original Cast in Action

The musical's many breaks from longstanding tradition fanned the flames. Audiences loved the unconventional performance and Hair became both a cultural phenomenon and a smash-hit. The cast’s original recording sold over a million copies and they also got their songs at the top of the pop charts. Charles Isherwood, a writer for the New York Times had this to say about the music, “For darker, knottier and more richly textured sonic experiences of the times, you turn to the Doors or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. Or all of them. For an escapist dose of the sweet sound of youth brimming with hope that the world is going to change tomorrow, you listen to Hair and let the sunshine in.”

The Legacy Of 'Hair'

A 2011 production of 'Hair in Norway. Source: Wikimedia Commons.'

The entire musical theater community has much to thank Hair for. Whether it be Hair’s success paving the way for more rock musicals to find their way on Broadway, or normalized the potential for off-Broadway shows to come onto Broadway, Hair served as a progressive artistic piece that is still beloved today.