Broadway on Acid: The First Rock Musical

As long as the performers stood stationary, James Rado said, a New York City ordinance allowed nudity in theatrical productions. Rado, along with his collaborator Gerome Ragni, took this opportunity to include a scene in their free-spirited musical in which the cast of over 20 performers shed their beads and jeans to sing a number stark naked. Before Hair, there was The Sound of Music and Camelot; after Hair, anything was possible.

Although 50 years have passed since its off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical endures as a stoned tribute to irreverent youth. What Ragni and Rado’s rock musical lacked in any manner of coherent plot, it made up for in cultural immediacy. The show was staged following the Summer of Love, and it depicted the tumultuous sixties in the thick of it: a two-and-a-half-hour war protest onstage complete with hashish, Shakespeare, and Kama Sutra.


The music of Hair achieved, perhaps, the most diverse recognition of any Broadway musical, with The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In,” Three Dog Night’s “Easy to Be Hard,” The Cowsills’ “Hair,” and Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” reaching radio-listening ears throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Many of the score’s numbers, however, were seemingly unconducive to pop success. “Sodomy” and “Hashish” are virtually musical inventories of sexual taboos and psychedelic drugs, respectively, and other numbers like “Colored Spade” and “Black Boys” presented assertive discussions on race and interracial love. Nevertheless, the musical’s original Broadway cast album charted at number one in the Billboard 200. No other Broadway musical cast album has reached that spot since, although The Hamilton Mixtape hit number one last year.

The mainstream success of Hair came with swift — and sometimes violent — backlash. A performance in Boston was cancelled after the State Supreme Court found issue with its desecration of the American flag, and the Hanna Theater in Cleveland lost more than 40 windows to a bomb during its Hair run. In a bizarre 1971 protest to the musical tour, a Christian minister in St. Paul released about a dozen mice into the theater on opening night hoping to scare audiences out of the blasphemous production. His protest was unsuccessful.


Clive Barnes gave an incredulously supportive review of Broadway’s Hair in this magazine in the same 1968 issue containing an editorial titled “I Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.” Barnes forecasted the arrival of similar stage shows: “Two things though are certain: First, the new permissiveness has arrived on Broadway. Second, so has rock music. In some instances this will merely mean Broadway musicals that are louder and nuder.” The theater critic wasn’t hallucinating: by 1971, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar continued the rock musical tradition — sans sacrilege — and Oh! Calcutta! cast members were strutting across the stage of the Belasco Theatre in the buff for entire scenes.


The rock musical is now a regular occurrence, with hits like RentThe Rocky Horror Show, and Spring Awakening. Despite uproarious claims, Hair did not ravage the sanctity of the Broadway stage (at least not as severely as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or Carrie: The Musical). The strange trip of a show unapologetically and authentically reflected Vietnam-era counterculture in a way that is difficult to pull off with the current trend of meticulously tailored jukebox musicals and adaptations. As Barnes puts it, Hair’s “Thoreau skepticism that is as American as apple pie or burning draft cards” continues to call its audience at once back to nature and into outer space.


Read “Hair” by Clive Barnes. Published August 10, 1968 in the Post.