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February 18, 2022

The Origin of Hair: James Rado on the Landmark Musical


More than 50 years after its creation, the American tribal love rock musical Hair (US/UK) continues to celebrate the ‘60s counterculture in all its glory. Exploring ideas of identity, community, global responsibility and peace, Hair remains relevant as ever as it examines what it means to be a young person in a changing world. Co-creator James Rado reflects on the creation of this groundbreaking theatrical sensation.

Since my early teens, my daydream was to create a Broadway musical. I taught myself how to write lyrics by intensely studying the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter and so many others, and the popular music of the 1930s through the 1960s. As a young man I attempted to write The Dream of Mary Daisy and another, The Great Horror of the Twentieth Century. In college, besides acting in many plays, I wrote the music & lyrics for two shows: Interlude (at University of Maryland) and Cross Your Fingers (at Catholic University of America).

Following a two-year gig in the U.S. Navy, in 1956 I moved to New York City to be an actor. But it wasn’t until seven years later, 1963, that I got my first Broadway break when the famous director and teacher Lee Strasberg plucked me from an acting class for a small part in June Havoc’s Marathon ’33, starring Julie Harris.  This led to a string of acting roles. One show in particular, Hang Down Your Head and Die, is where I met fellow actor Gerome Ragni. 

Ragni and I became fast friends and I told him of my dream of creating a Broadway musical. I then proposed we team up to write a show about the hippies and the anti-war movement which was happening all around us. He came aboard with some of his exciting experimental poetry, his own brand of homespun humor, and a potent theatrical imagination.

In 1966, in the midst of writing Hair, I was cast in a major role on Broadway as Richard the Lionhearted in the James Goldman play The Lion in Winter, starring Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Christopher Walken.

By 1967, three years from the first idea to collaborate, Ragni and I had a presentable text called Hair. No one wanted to produce it… until a chance meeting. On a train back to New York after an acting gig at Yale University (in Megan Terry’s Viet Rock), Gerome Ragni sat across from another passenger – the famous Shakespearean producer Joseph Papp. Ragni handed Papp the Hair script. Papp liked what he read and called the “creative trio” into his office to hear the score. By now, Galt MacDermot was well into composing the music for our lyrics. With Galt at the piano, Ragni and I sang our songs.

Papp decided to open his newly-founded New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater with HAIR. On October 17, 1967, our show first saw the light of the stage, directed by Gerald Freedman, where it ran for eight weeks. Michael Butler saw a performance of Hair and acquired the rights from Joe Papp to move the production, under his auspices as an independent producer, to the Cheetah Nightclub (for one month). Hair’s success with audiences continued and the authors convinced Butler to re-cast the show, adding a new director of their choosing (Tom O’Horgan) and an advanced script which included 13 new songs… all with the idea of moving the show to Broadway. The new cast (Tribe) was comprised of five performers from the Public Theater show, plus 17 new faces.

It opened on Broadway on April 29, 1968. Ragni played Berger and I played Claude. The rest is theatrical history.

For more information about Hair and other great plays and musicals, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.

Header Image: 2009 Broadway production of Hair (Joan Marcus)