The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius
So here it is, at last. The most revered, reviled, lauded, applauded, imitated - yet inimitable - musical in history. "A musical of today rather than the day before yesterday," in the words of new York Times critic, Clive Barnes.
So what IS a musical of today?
Well, for starters, it means a musical score that can match, rhythm for rhythm, the most complex creations of the Beatles and Burt Bacharach. A score written in less than four days that contributed five songs to the Top Ten (and how long is it since a musical did THAT?) and, with "Aquarius", provided the theme song for a generation.
It means lyrics that talk a language finally freed from the cloying traditions that rarely ventured beyond "June," "moon," and "croon." Above all, it means free wheeling disregard for the tyranny of a formalized "plot."
If hair, as a production, shows little concern for the conventions of theatre, its beginning showed even less so. Ever since the musical first emerged from its humble origins in turn-of-the-century burlesque houses (sandwiched somewhere between the juggler and the stand-up comic) to become an art form in its own right, the process of creation has been more or less preordained. Get together a composer and lyricist, let them hide themselves away somewhere for a few months (or years), then emerge with completed libretto to the huzzahs of the Broadway crowd and, a few months later, the applause of appreciative audiences.
Hair, as befits a musical of unconvention, began on scraps of paper and discarded envelopes, the wanton brainchild of two actors named Gerome Ragni and James Rado. God knows, they had little to recommend them: as actors, limited success; as writers, no success at all. And one vital factor was missing altogether: a composer.
This was in 1967. "Mame" and "Man of La Mancha" were big on Broadway - good musicals both, but light years away from a "tribal love-rock musical." Even so, agent Nat Shapiro detected a small glimmering of talent in those scrap-paper jottings. He decided to introduce ragni and Rado to composer galt MacDermot.
The first meeting was in auspicious. The writers, tumble-haired and ebullient, contrasted oddly with the short-haired, quiet-spoken father of four. But somehow the trio clicked. And in four incredible days, Ragni and Rado polished their lyrics and "non-book" and MacDermot produced a score destined to "let the sunshine in" on a theatre that had grown tone-deaf to the demands of its new audiences.
By some miracle, the completed show was chosen to launch Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, at the downtown Public Theatre. There, packed audiences met for the first time: George Berger, the thatch-topped tornado who has been forcibly ejected from high-school; "Woof", who has been forcibly ejected from the YMCA; and Claude Hooper Bukowski, who wishes he could be forcibly ejected from his obligations to the Army. Plus Sheila, Hud, Jeanie, Crissy, Dionne, Steve, Paul, Suzannah, and all of Hair's other anti-heros and heroines.
At the end of its eight-week run, it seemed that Hair might be cut short. But the plot, unlike Hair's, thickened. Hirsute millionaire Michael Butler had seen the show, loved it, and bought it. After a short run at the Cheetah Discotecque, the show finally went legit on April 29, 1968, at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre.
The rest, as they used to say in the old-time shows, is history. Hair history. More tribes than any other musical ever - in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, London, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, Stockholm. Even, incredibly, Belgrade.
And now, _____________________(insert name of city here). Ladies and gentlemen, hippies and hard-hats, the pleasure's all yours. Or ought to be.
Welcome to the tribe.
Copyright Natoma Productions.