In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

James Rado co-wrote the book and lyrics for "Hair."

James Rado talks about his "Hair"

Few Broadway musicals are sharply focused snapshots of a culture during a narrow window in time. None are as vividly specific as "Hair."

The Age of Aquarius, the hippie movement, the eruption of an American counterculture lasted less than a decade in the late 1960s and early '70s, and the American tribal love-rock musical, as "Hair" called itself, was the single most popularly successful artistic expression of it. Opening on Broadway in the spring of 1968 after a six week off-Broadway engagement the previous fall, the show spun off several Top 40 hits and ran for four years. A London production lasted five years.

Broadway's establishment of white, middle aged and older male producers passed on the opportunity to mount the musical -- legendary producer David Merrick refused to even read the script -- and the old guard wasn't prepared for the "Hair" assault on its sensibilities.

The jubilant celebration of drugs, nudity, sex acts and, of course, long hair was as foreign to the Broadway aesthetic as sumo wrestling. Chicago millionaire and political activist Michael Butler had seen "Hair" during its off-Broadway run and liked it for its anti-Vietnam War theme. Although he was a Broadway neophyte, Butler provided the financial resources and became "Hair's" producer.

James Rado and Gerome Ragni, a couple of actors who were close friends, conceived of the show and authored the book and lyrics. The duo had met while in the cast of a musical revue about capital punishment.

Rado previously played Richard Lionheart in the Broadway production of "The Lion in Winter," and Ragni had Broadway experience acting in Richard Burton's 1964 "Hamlet."

A national touring company production of "Hair" is coming to the Marcus Center next week, and I recently chatted with Rado, who is now 79, by phone.

"We weren't hippies and we didn't wear our hair long, but this (hippie) movement was introducing a new way of being," he recalled. "We responded to it. I was opposed to the (Vietnam) war and went out in the streets with the protesters."

The two men were taken with the way the counterculture was transforming parts of New York, especially Central Park, where a reported 10,000 persons showed up for a Be-In on Easter Sunday in 1967. "The culture was changing, and we wanted to express what was happening," Rado continued.

"The sight of men growing their hair long was pretty dramatic. You had never seen men looking like that. Hippies looked like they were from another dimension."

From his early teens, Rado had dreamed of writing a Broadway musical, and the counterculture provided the material for that to come true. Ragni and Rado created "Hair's" characters and wrote the story and lyrics.

After rejecting several prospective composers to write a score, they met transplanted Canadian Galt MacDermot, the son of a diplomat. The "Hair" team was formed. "It was fate or God or some other factor that brought us to Galt," Rado said.

MacDermot's songs were full of the hooks that keep tunes running through minds, and they remain the strongest element of the show. The score's irresistible vitality has saved "Hair" from becoming just a quaint period piece.

Rado and Ragni were in "Hair's" original Broadway cast, which included an unknown Diane Keaton. The co-writers had to grow out their own hair. "Jerry (Ragni) was amazed with the wild crop of hair he had," Rado said.

Ragni died in 1991.

"Hair" was briefly revived on Broadway in 1977, and the much more successful 2009 production won a "best musical revival" Tony Award while running for more than a year. That staging, directed by Diane Paulus, is what we will see at the Marcus Center next week.

Exceptional Acting at Soulstice Theatre

Soulstice Theatre is reminding us that compelling stagecraft can be found anywhere with its affecting production of "Shining City," an engaging psychological drama written by the superb Irish playwright Conor McPherson. David Ferrie's portrait of an anguished widower haunted by his late wife and their marriage is as fine a piece of acting as we have seen in Milwaukee this season.

Jillian Smith's portrayal of a woman being dumped by the father of her baby is exquisitely genuine and sensitive. Actors Josh Perkins and Jordan Gwiadzowski are also impressive, and the decision to place cast and audience on the Auditorium Theatre stage at the Marian Center for Nonprofits results in an appropriately intimate experience.

The production runs through Feb. 27. Check it out.


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