As years go, 1968 is packed with notable events.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
The first 747 took to the skies. Star Trek showed television’s first interracial kiss.
New York Times critic Clive Barnes—a fan—caved to pressure from anxious preview audience members, who wanted him to warn prospective ticket buyers what they were in for. Tongue firmly in cheek, he complied within the body of a rave review:
A great many four letter words such as “love”
A number of men and women (I should have counted)… totally nude
Frequent approving references… to the expanding benefits of drugs
Then, as now, a growing youth movement occupied the American public’s imagination.
Back then, young people were in revolt against the Vietnam War and the values their parents held dear.
While other cast members emerged from New York’s hippie scene, Ragni and Rado’s backgrounds were somewhat lacking in patchouli. Rado was an aspirant composer of traditional Broadway musicals. Ragni, as a member of The Open Theater, was a bit more tuned in, theatrically speaking.
As Rado recalled in an interview:
There was so much excitement in the streets and the parks and the hippie areas, and we thought if we could transmit this excitement to the stage it would be wonderful. … We hung out with them and went to their Be-Ins (and) let our hair grow.
Barnes wryly noted in his review that “these hard-working and talented actors are in reality about as hippie as Mayor Lindsay.”
But there’s nothing too wig-like about the hair swinging around in the above footage—from the Grammys, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the 1969 Tony Awards where the cast was introduced by Harry Belafonte. There’s a spontaneity seldom seen in big budget musicals these days, though with a national tour hitting the road and dozens of 50th anniversary productions popping up across the country, we may be in for a redux.
To learn more about Hair’s role in theater history—including understudy Diane Keaton’s refusal to get naked and a page from the Times’ theater listings showing what else was playing at the time—read The Bowery Boys photo-packed 50th anniversary salute.
Sing along with the original Off-Broadway cast below.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC on Wednesday, May 16 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.