Interview with Jim Rado, Co Creator of "Hair"

February 11, 2013 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jim Rado, the creator of Hair has been both vilified and celebrated in public since the first performance of Hair opened onstage. It is not an overstatement to say that his work changed the society we all live in and broke boundaries that pushed musical theatre forward. Hair is not only a work of soulful music, intensely intimate themes, backdrops of epic as well as shockingly small proportions. Above all, it was the moment at which the hippie ethos was captured. Considering the violence, police action, and anger that the musical engendered, how does Jim feel about it now? Join us after the jump for the details.

The original poster for Hair"

The History of Hair

The roar heard at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968, was the zeitgeist of the ‘60s infiltrating Broadway. The occasion was the opening night of Hair. Clive Barnes, theater critic for The New York Times, enthusiastically called the show “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.” He was alluding to the fact that this self-described “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” reflected the taste of the young generation; the score sounded like the popular music being played on the radio. What the groundbreaking show didn’t sound like was any other Broadway musical.    

It’s almost incomprehensible today, when rock musicals are so much a part of the fabric of American culture, that there was a time, not terribly long ago, when the idea of a rock musical on Broadway seemed outlandish, implausible. But when James Rado and the late Gerome Ragni, who wrote the book and lyrics for Hair, initially tried to interest Broadway producers in the show, no one wanted anything to do with it. It wasn’t just the sound of the show that was different; it was the very essence of the very unstructured material: a tribe of hippies singing, sometimes profanely, about their dreams and fears and concerns – not to mention sex and drugs – seemed out of place on Broadway. And that was precisely why Rado and Ragni set their sights on Broadway. “We wanted to reach the uptown crowd and shake things up,” says Rado. “The subject matter was unlike anything that had been done on Broadway.”  

Through an agent, they sent the script to a number of producers. There were no takers. Those same producers likely regretted their decision, as the original Broadway production of Hair played 1750 performances and ran for more than four years. And the show’s timelessness was validated when the recent production, directed by Diane Paulus, won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The characters onstage may be hippies, but their experiences and emotions speak to all generations, and resonate powerfully in these uncertain times.

The touring company of Hair met with resistance throughout the United States. In South Bend, Indiana, the Morris Civic Auditorium refused booking, and in Evansville, Indiana, the production was picketed by several church groups. In Indianapolis, Indiana, the producers had difficulty securing a theater, and city authorities suggested that the cast wear body stockings as a compromise to the city's ordinance prohibiting publicly displayed nudity. Productions were frequently confronted with the closure of theaters by the fire marshal, as in Gladewater, Texas. Chattanooga's 1972 refusal to allow the play to be shown at the city-owned Memorial Auditorium was later found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be an unlawful prior restraint.

The legal challenges against the Boston production were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Chief of the Licensing Bureau took exception to the portrayal of the American flag in the piece, saying, "anyone who desecrates the flag should be whipped on Boston Common." Although the scene was removed before opening, the District Attorney's office began plans to stop the show, claiming that "lewd and lascivious" actions were taking place onstage. The Hair legal team obtained an injunction against criminal prosecution from the Superior Court, and the D.A. appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. At the request of both parties, several of the justices viewed the production and handed down a ruling that "each member of the cast [must] be clothed to a reasonable extent." The cast defiantly played the scene nude later that night, stating that the ruling was vague as to when it would take effect. The next day, April 10, 1970, the production closed, and movie houses, fearing the ruling on nudity, began excising scenes from films in their exhibition. After the Federal appellate bench reversed the Massachusetts court's ruling, the D.A. appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 4–4 decision, the Court upheld the lower court's decision, allowing Hair to re-open on May 22.

In April 1971, a bomb was thrown at the exterior of a theater in Cleveland, Ohio that had been housing a production, bouncing off the marquee and shattering windows in the building and in nearby storefronts.[141] That same month, the families of cast member Jonathon Johnson and stage manager Rusty Carlson died in a fire in the Cleveland hotel where 33 members of the show's troupe had been staying. The Sydney, Australia production's opening night was interrupted by a bomb scare in June 1969

The revival is considerably different from the original Broadway production, which was quite different from the first off-Broadway production at New York’s Public Theater. The premise and the characters have stayed the same, but the details have changed. “The idea was to write a show about hippies, about the ‘peace/love movement,” says Rado. “The hippie movement was largely a white movement, but we wanted to have an integrated cast. So we decided to bring in black characters and address the civil rights aspects of the day.

The Interview with Jim Rado. (with commentary)

Getting to talk to Jim was no small endeavor.

When Sarah Roy, the redoubtable publicity agent for The Artist Series asked me if I was interested in any cast interviews, I requested Jim Rado.  Not exactly a touring cast member of the production, but definitely the ultimate authority.

Her immediate response, was something along the lines of 'yeah, whatever', but I had faith in the young woman's ability.  After all, Rado has ties to the area.  An older sister, Charlotte Kay Stroud was a mainstay of the Saint Augustine Theatre Community for decades (and apparently a former cast member of "Our Gang") and I had met his brother Ted Rado a couple of years back and discussed the possibility of producing another Rado creation: Rainbow.

A few days later, I got a terse response that didnt sound very hopeful. "Apparently he's not from here.  Rado is from New York".

To which I replied simply "Everyone from Jacksonville is from New York."

Still a few days later, i got a very very long chain of publicist emails from multiple locations (sent, I think, to demonstrate how difficult it was to get to Rado) letting me know that he would speak to me.

In the meantime, I did the research that you do when you are going to ask presumptuous questions about someone, their life, and career, and I found myself oddly touched by this fellow.

The first thing that occurred to me was the sweeping backdrop against which Hair was written and performed. Hair opened for real in 1968, and the country was deeply embroiled in the Viet Nam War.  "Hippie" Counter Culture was still a vague and uncoalesced kind of general movement.  Yippies, beatniks, conscientious objectors, intellectuals and hipster college students of the West Coast had just experienced the "Summer of Love" in 1967, during which Rado (and Ragni) were writing the musical (whose trial opening was in October of 1967).  The musical was literally written in the heat of the movement as it took to the streets and began spreading by airwaves, record stores and counter cultural newspapers across the country.

People often have a distorted cultural viewpoint of the 1960s and 1970s.  We have a tendency to believe that the most remarkable and revolutionary attributes of a decade were commonplace or ordinary at the time they happened.  In fact, outside of a general depression, pestilence, or general war, they almost never are.

If anything most of the 1960s was more like Forest Gump than Jenny's country.  People forget that the political choices were between Arch Conservative Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Texan Cold Warrior who pushed the War in Viet Nam.  There were more students involved in Young Americans For Freedom than had ever smoked reefer, taken birth control or had grown their hair out hippie style.  "Radical Liberal" at the time meant that you supported the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and didnt necessarily think that Blacks would always be at a 'disadvantage' provided that they had education and proper nutrition.

JFK had been killed, but when Hair was opening, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated.

It was, as they say, a different time.

The politics and the raw social milieu alone make the story and the cultural achievement remarkable. To pull something to the stage literally as it is happening to such an extent that the show itself became a part of the culture is an almost mythic event.  But the story behind the themes and inspirations that created Hair has become more manifest over the years, as Rado has opened up about the deeper relationship that existed between him and Ragni.

And I think that this part of the Hair mythos needs to be contextualized.

Artistically and structurally Hair is a Concept Musical.  It was also the first expression of a Concept Musical as a Rock Opera.  Its themes manage to be eternal for all of the political context that made the performance so electrifying to American intellectuals and audiences.  Sexual expression and intimacy are some of the most powerful themes that the show explores (and not just because Hair was the first performance to utilize full frontal nudity as part of the show.).  

It is hardly new information that the story line embraces almost total sexual freedom, including 'sodomy', interacial sexual relations (tabu at the time), bisexuality and gayness.  In fact the central relationship arc ends in a threeway kiss that turns into a male to male kiss between Claude and Berger.

But Hair was also an exploration of pansexual intimacy that transcended simple sexual identity and depicted degrees of intimacy that simply were not embraced by the society at large.

Back to the context of the times.  

In 1967 "Homosexuality" was still illegal in every state of the Union and most of the western world, including Canada.  It was still listed in the The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The world's first gay bookshop opened in New York City late that year, and across the country, people were still being jailed, beaten, electrocuted and medicated for sex crimes.  The pioneering intellectual gay publication "Gay Sunshine" would not publish its first edition until three years later.

And yet in Hair, onstage, as Clive Barnes noted in his original New York Times review of the production: "homosexuality is not frowned upon."

Rado revealed to the Advocate Magazine that he and Ragni were deeply in love.  Anyone looking at this old publicity today would probably make that guess at a glance, but at the time, there wasn't a social construction for the concept of bisexuality in any practical sense, so that part of the story remained secret.  Ragni had married and was the father of a son before he and Rado had even met.

Gerome Ragni (left) and Jim Rado (right)

So in retrospect, it seems like an even more poignant accomplishment, at least to my mind.  At the bottom of this article there is a link to the Advocate's excellent interview with Rado on the subject a few years ago.

However, Hair is hardly Rado's only show.  Since then he has written "Rainbow" (1972) and "Sun" (1974) both of which have been through enough permutations and iterations to qualify as being truly Vedic. When deciding what to talk about with Rado, I settled on a couple of main themes that avoided being re documentarian---i just didn't want to bore anyone with old well worn subjects.  He has recently been involved in a conceptual revisitation of Rainbow (and I actually have a little prior experience with the show, as it turns out) and I thought I would explore the new developments with him.  Also, I was very curious about how he views the impact of Hair in retrospect, and what he has to say about the long ago critics

I decided to let his sexual and identity life rest.  If you would like to read previous interviews or read about "Hair" check out the links to the Advocate interview and the images of the critical reviews that Jim provided to us at the end of this article.  (They are a pretty amazing bit of historical documentation in their own right.)

The Interview

Stephen Dare: Hi Jim, thank you so much for your time.  I don't know if you know this, but I know your brother Ted.

Jim Rado: Hello there!  How do you know Ted?

Stephen Dare: Well Im in Jacksonville and about 20 years ago, I guess Ted was staying in the area, and I had control of a fairly large theatre and through a mutual friend, we were talking about doing a production of "Rainbow"

Jim Rado: Really?  When did you say this was?

Stephen Dare: Early 1990s.  He talked about you fairly often, as you can imagine, and I was just in love with the show, but you know how it is.  It just didnt come together.  The financial backers had their own issues and one thing led to another and nothing came of it, but I was left with a fondness for Ted, and he had a fondness for you.

Jim Rado: Really?

Stephen Dare: Yes, well you know. Thats what he expressed, I don't have any insight into your private lives, but with us he was always very enthusiastic about you!

Jim Rado: Thats wild!  Im going to have to call Ted as soon as we get off the phone and let him know that Ive met you.

Stephen Dare: Please tell him that I said hello!  Its been a number of years obviously, but I think he will remember me.

Jim Rado: So how much of Rainbow did you get to see?  Did you actually get to see the music, or read it?  

Stephen Dare: I got to see the score and hear a lot of it played out on piano.  We were actually fairly well into the process.  I remember the costume concepts pretty vividly.  Lovely, feathery, frilly things.  Bright colors of course.  Blue costume for the Blues, Red for Rock and Roll, Green for something else...and of course, such beautiful music.

Jim Rado: You don't say? Thats very kind of you to say.  Well you know that Its been re written a few times over the years, and Ive actually been working on bringing it back into production, mounting a new show of it.  Ive been talking pretty seriously with a group about it.

Stephen Dare: No way!  Wow.  Thats amazing.  Well I loved the show, and considering the nature of the times, I really think this is probably the time. It fits the zeitgeist now.  The 90s were a little darker and more angry.  It was grunge and angst.  But I think people would groove to the idea of the spectrum of music.

Jim Rado: You know I agree with you.  I think the time is right for it.

Stephen Dare: Wow thats personally exciting!  I loved the show and would really love to see it performed on a stage in a full production.

Jim Rado: Well perhaps I could send you a....

Stephen Dare: I would die to see a recent copy of the script and score!  Ive got a bunch of non disclosure forms laying around here!

Jim Rado: Maybe you would like it.

Stephen Dare: Thats amazing!  Metrojacksonville is an online publication and I notified my readers that I was going to be talking to you and I did have a couple of questions from our readers that I would like to ask you about Hair, which is being performed next week here in Jacksonville.

Jim Rado: Yes, this is really a great show.  Great cast, great production.  I really think people are going to like this production.  Im not going to be there, but the critics all seem to be liking it wherever they go.

Stephen Dare: So I know this is a hard question to answer, but maybe its not.  The music from Hair.  Its been forty years since you wrote the songs. The world has changed alot, and the show has become kind of a living document of a time and place in American history.  Which of the songs still resonate with you personally?  Or rather which song or songs really still has the most special meaning to you.

Jim Rado: I don't really know how to answer that, I like them all, and they are part of me now.  But if I had to pick one of them and say "This one.  This one still calls to me, it would probably be Black Boys and White Boys.  That one still speaks to me.

Stephen Dare: Really?  I wouldn't have guessed that.  Why?

Jim Rado: The Race issues still happen don't they.

Stephen Dare: I am very interested in your take on the musical as a bit of historical documentation.  Hair was really not just part of the hippie culture, it was also one of the things that helped define that culture, I think.  I cant think of another kind of documentation that really seems to capture time, place, and movement from that period so comprehensively.  It kind of irritates me when people chatter about how the musical should be 'updated'---and that happens less and less, I think as time goes by.  People seem to be gradually realizing how important it is as an accurate portrayal of time and place.

Jim Rado: Oh yes.  Completely.  It was very important to us that it was set in 1968.  It was about Now, and in retrospect it was the right decision.  If it had been a year later it would have been in 1969, which was really a different time, and it would have been about something different.  No, it was about 1968, a particular time and place for the movement. It was between the Summer of Love, when that movement was really just beginning and it was about all of the ideals and hopes and the opening of a new way of thinking.

Stephen Dare: But I think people miss that.  We have a tendency to think of the sixties and even the seventies as these swinging, radical times, but the daily reality was really different wasn't it?  Hippies were a new thing, not really quantified yet, but we seem to have blanketed our national memory of the sixties with a representation of them as the norm.  In reality people were very straight laced.  Most kids were 4H and there was a resurgent 'Conservative Youth" movement at the time.  Barry Goldwater, John Birchers and Young Americans for Freedom.

Jim Rado: Yes you can see the paralells with the present day and time, don't you think?

Stephen Dare: Yes I suppose thats true.

Jim Rado: Hippies were just beginning to spread and come into their own. They were dismissed by all those types, but it turned out that what they dismissed as a fringe was really the first wave of a whole new generation of ideas and philosophy and beliefs.

Stephen Dare: I wonder how you feel about that?

Jim Rado: How do you mean?

Stephen Dare: Well in the final analysis, with Hair, weren't you a more accurate documentarian of the social milieu?  Like if you think about it, you and Ragni were more factual about the intangibles than Walter Kronkite was.

Jim Rado: Laughs. Its ironic isn't it?

Stephen Dare: Did you know that your viewpoint would become the mainstream eventually?  And that that old conception of the world would look extreme and so wrong?

Jim Rado: I think we all hoped that was true, and with young people I think it was true.  It just took a little time for the rest of the world to catch up.

Stephen Dare: And the show wasn't really embraced by the society was it?  I mean sure, you had some positive reviews amongst the intellectual press, but there was also a very oppositional reaction to Hair wasn't there?  At least from what Ive read.

Jim Rado: Well they were very dismissive of hippie culture, and they felt that they had to marginalize, but I think that they just didnt realize that the hippie movement wasnt a fluke, it was just the beginning of the new generation and its ideals.  In reality, the press and the reviewers really got behind the show and helped drive it towards a huge success.  Clive Barnes was an early supporter, and he kept supporting and publicizing the show.  He was a big factor in its success.

Stephen Dare: Really?  Its so hard to get a grasp of the critical reception because so few of the resources and publications of the time are still around and even fewer of them have digitized the information so that it can be read by anyone.

Jim Rado: You know I believe Ive got some of the old reviews sitting around in an old filing cabinet around here, if you are interested in them.

Stephen Dare: Are you serious?  No that would be fantastic.  It would be interesting to get a glimpse!

Jim Rado: Well I will look through my files this afternoon, and see if I can send you some of them.

Stephen Dare: Wow. that would be so wonderful.

Stephen Dare: Its such an honor to speak with you, Ive wondered about you over the years.

Jim Rado: Well thank you, this has been an interesting talk.

Stephen Dare: Jim please let me know whats going on with Rainbow.  I would love to know, and love to write about it.


And so we made our pleasantries and wound the conversation down.

That night, Jim emailed me the old reviews from Hair, and to my delight, they are full of handwritten notations and underlined, retyped up on an old carrier and return style typewriter, including a few old drink rings on a couple of them.  Amazing conversation and such a cool thing to offer up for publication.

We didnt discuss his relationship with Ragni, or his recent death, and to be frank I would like to continue the conversation with him, which I will pursue.  Rainbow is an an amazing show, and I hope to check back on this article in a couple of years perhaps to link it to a current production of it at that time.

In the meantime I came across the photo of the two of them which I included above, and my heart caught in my chest a little.  What it must have been like to be young, and famous, and revolutionary and young in 1968, on broadway---the darling of the critical and intellectual press of this country.  The photo, like the show itself, seems to perfectly catch a time and a place.

Interview and article by Stephen Dare.
(thanks to Sarah Roy, the indefatigable publicist who made it happen)

"Hair", Painting by Jim Dine, after which the musical was named.

For a candid discussion with Jim Rado about his career and loves, check out the iconic interview in The Advocate:

JAMES RADO (Co-Creator,Hair)

Born in Venice Beach, CA. Raised in Rochester, NY and Washington, D.C. Studied acting with Lee Strasberg. With Gerome Ragni created the book and lyrics of Hair. On Broadway originated the roles of Richard the Lionhearted (The Lion in Winter) & Claude (Hair). Did Agnes Varda's film Lions Lovewith Viva and Jerry Ragni. Has written two other shows: Rainbow and Sun. Over the last dozen years, he has been focusing on the HAIR script again, to sharpen it for modern-day sensibilities.

And here are the review notes mentioned above. They are remarkable bits of theatre history, if only because they show the typewritten excerpts, often with editorial markups, corrections and notes in the hand of the author.

Thanks Jim!