Theatre yesterday and today



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I saw a terrific college production of Hair this past weekend at Hofstra University on Long Island, innovatively directed by an old friend, Cindy Rosenthal, and energetically and inspirationally performed by its young cast. It is one of many times I've sat through it, going back to 1969 when I first saw it in its original production, about a year into its Broadway run. I was only twelve-years-old back then, but had already memorized the score. Two years after the official "summer of love," had been declared, you couldn't turn on the radio (yes, radio!) without hearing a song from its contagious score. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200, the last Broadway cast album to do so (nope, Hamilton didn't manage that feat. I double-checked).

This month of October also marks fifty years since Hair, conceived and co-written by James Radio, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot, gave its very first performance. Not on Broadway, mind you (that wouldn't happen until exactly six months later). No, the venue was downtown at the Astor Library on Lafayette Street in the East Village, then the brand new home (in a very old building) of the fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival, better today known as The Public Theatre. Under the leadership of its founder Joseph Papp, whose radical ideas included free Shakespeare in the park, Hair would mark not only his first non-Shakespearean offering, but the first time admission was charged to one of this shows. The ticket price: $2.50.

Not the Hair album cover most have become familiar with for close to 50 years.

This was the first recording of its Off-Broadway version in 1967.

It's important to zero in on what a visionary Joe Papp was. If there ever was a theatrical producer with more chutzpah and determination than Papp, it would be hard to name him. The home he built to house his productions,—now enjoying more prosperity and award winning shows than ever before—is a monument to one man's perseverance, talent and yes, ego.

In 1966, while Papp was teaching a class at Yale, and the Public Theatre was just getting off the ground, he attended a production at the university of Megan Terry's Viet Rock, an anti-war rock musical. First performed by the Open Theatre, an experimental company at the forefront of what came to be known as "off-off Broadway," Viet Rock was having a kind of out-of-town tryout at Yale, as it was scheduled for an open-ended commercial run later in the year (where it did not succeed).

Then one day while Papp was commuting on the train between Manhattan and New Haven, Gerome Ragni, a Viet Rock actor and a founding member of the Open Theatre, saw the producer and, knowing who he was, went over to talk. Ragni had a purpose: to passionately pitch an anti-war musical of his own he had written in collaboration with his partner James Rado, which had already been submitted for Papp to produce. Ragni also conveniently had a few pages of lyrics at the ready, which sufficiently impressed Papp enough to pull this musical called Hair out from the bottom of a pile of scripts stacked next to his desk, upon his return to the office.

Liking what he read, Papp had Ragni and Rado come perform their songs for him and Gerald Freedman, who was then Papp's associate artistic director at the theatre. Hating what they heard, they told the team in no uncertain terms a better composer was necessary to proceed, which is when Galt MacDermot entered the story.

"I was an ex-organist and choir director from Montreal who had received my music degree in South Africa and had spent most of my life playing jazz and rock-and–roll on the piano," MacDermot explained by way of biography. I never even heard of a hippie when I met Rado and Ragni."

James Radio, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot at the recording session

for the Broadway Hair (note McDermot wearing a tie).

With their efforts together somehow working, the production, however, was not. Freedman, who took on the directing chores, couldn't get any semblance of discipline out of the motley crew, especially when Rado and Ragni (according to Freedman) were constantly showing up stoned at rehearsals. Battle lines were drawn, sides were taken, and when choreographer Anna Sokolow chose to align herself with the authors, Freedman quit. Taking took over the reins, Sokolow promptly handed one of the lead roles to Rado (which he had been angling for since Day One).

Tensions mounted when a few days before the first preview, the Scenic Artists and Brotherhood of Painters went on strike. Hair's scenic designer, the now venerable Ming Cho Ling, described the final dress rehearsal as "hopeless. Nineteen thirties modern dance with half-finished scenery set to rock-and-roll.” It was then that Papp fired Sokolow and rehired Freedman. Upon his return, Freedman fired Rado, brought the show back to his original staging, and helped mend the situation with the off-stage strikers.

So after all that, how did it go? Well, the reviews were mixed, but somehow Papp and company had achieved their primary goal, which was exciting audiences with a new kind of musical: one with a non-linear structure, a highly original score, and stream-of-conscious lyrics that made for a profound poetic intensity.

It was then that Michael Butler entered the picture. A theatre novice, he was actually considering a run for the U.S. Senate: a one-issue candidate out to end the war in Vietnam. An heir to a Chicago family fortune, he somehow got tangled up in Hair, seeing it multiple times during its six-week limited run downtown. He loved it and came on board with Papp to underwrite a move uptown—but not to Broadway

The venue chosen to move Freedman's production was the Cheetah, a nightclub/discotheque on W 53rd Street, just east of 8th Avenue. It hardly triumphed there, closing in a short while. The show still needed a lot of work, but there was still that score! Butler felt that with a new director, who could help expand its threadbare book into something more cohesive, the show would have a greater chance at success. He went to Tom O'Horgan, a largely experimental director who believed strongly in improvisation to create his plays and musicals, and the person who was the first choice for Hair all along (though unavailable at the time).

It was at this crucial moment when Papp had to take stock as to whether it was the right move for him and his fledging new theatre. Was he really of the desire to bring what he hoped would be a new kind of reality-based theatre to the staid Broadway audiences of 1968? And would approval by the masses be a good thing? If they liked it, wouldn't that mean he conformed in some way? "I was a purist back then," Papp told Kenneth Turan in his seminal book on the Public Theatre, Free For All. "I had great contempt for Broadway. I felt it was just a commercial marketplace that had nothing to do with art."

So Papp relinquished the rights to Hair in exchange for half of one percent of the gross of the Broadway production. Even though it came to roughly between $1.5 to $2 million over the next four years, it was a pittance compared to what a fifty percent stake could have done for the Public Theatre (do the math).

With a number of new cast members replacing old ones, and thirteen new songs in the mix, Hair opened three months later on April 29, 1968 at the Biltmore Theatre on 47th Street, just six blocks south of the Cheetah. Defying all expectations, it became an instant smash hit (its notorious nude scene may have helped in all this, but we’ll never really know for sure, will we?). It remained at the Biltmore for more than four years, spouting multiple productions across the country and the world, with a popularity that knew no bounds.

The original Broadway cast of Hair (1968).

When Papp was next confronted with a musical of his that seemed to catch the Zeitgeist, he was not about to make the same mistake twice. In 1971 (and for the first time) he took one of his shows from "off" to Broadway. It was a rock version of Shakespeare'sTwo Gentlemen of Verona, which had enjoyed a limited run in Central Park over the summer (where it could be seen for free) and Papp bravely took it to the St. James Theatre, where he offered it at the then-top ticket price of $15. And whaddya know? It was a hit, winning the Tony for Best Musical and running nearly two years (its composer, by the way, was Hair's Galt MacDermot). Two Gents held the record for the most successful show Papp ever produced ... that is until four years later, when he moved another show out of the old Astor Library directly to Broadway, where it had a historic, record-breaking run.

That was A Chorus Line; another story to be saved for another day.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Please email me with comments or questions at