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.