Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is a rock musical with a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot.
A product of the hippie counter-culture and sexual revolution of the 1960s, 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 pacifistic principles and risking his life.
After an Off-Broadway debut in October 1967 at Joseph Papp's Public Theater and a subsequent run in a midtown discothèque space, 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, which ran for 1,997 performances. Since then, numerous productions have been staged around the world, spawning dozens of recordings of the musical, including the 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 on March 31, 2009, earning strong reviews and winning the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for best revival of a musical. In 2008, Time magazine 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.