Interview with Jim Rado, Co Creator of Hair

February 23, 2014 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.)

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