The Man Behind the Hair

In his most candid interview to date, James Rado the cocreator and original star of Hair discusses the making of the musical and his intimate relationship with collaborator Gerome Ragni—a relationship that inspired the characters of Claude and Berger and consequently changed America forever.

BY Sheela Lambert

August 13 2008 12:00 AM ET

Hair is the outrageous, groundbreaking, influential, and very bisexual rock musical that altered the social and sexual landscape in America, changed the modern musical and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. It was the first rock musical on Broadway, the first Broadway show to feature full nudity (by the entire cast, no less), and the first to feature a same-sex kiss. The Broadway production got two Tony nominations, and the cast album went to number 1 on the music charts, scoring a Grammy and spawning four number 1 singles. Many artists -- including Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, the Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night, the Cowsills, and Nina Simone --covered songs from Hair. According to ASCAP, "Aquarius" was played more frequently on U.S. radio and television than any other song in 1970. Hair was even made into a film in 1979. Since its first performance in 1967, as the play that inaugurated Joseph Papp’s then-new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village, Hair has been performed almost continuously around the world. Over 40 years after Hair first hit the stage at the Public, it has come full circle and is now playing at the Public’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Without Hair, there would have been no Rent, no Cats, no Equus, or even Naked Boys Singing. And without James Rado, the cocreator of the musical, who also starred in the role of Claude on Broadway and has directed many productions of it since, there would be no Hair.

Though synonymous with the production now, Rado was an actor in his own right before the musical's success. He originated the role of Richard the Lionhearted in A Lion in Winter on Broadway, and when he was cast in an off-Broadway musical, Hang Down Your Head and Die, Rado met Hair cocreator Gerome Ragni. The two became fast friends -- a friendship that far outlasted that show, which closed after one night.

Although Rado was enjoying some success as an actor, he had always wanted to create a musical. “That’s where my real heart lay creatively…. that was the ultimate to me,” he says.

Ragni was equally interested in creating a new kind of show and had already been very involved with the experimental Open Theater. The two came up with the idea of capturing what was going on in the Hippie scene in musical form. They moved into a small apartment in Hoboken, N.J., together and started writing Hair in every spare moment either in longhand or on a typewriter they'd borrowed from their landlord.

Contrary to what has been written, they were not out-of-work actors trying to write themselves a job; they were acting and auditioning all through the script-writing process. At one point Jim was in a touring company, and Jerry followed him on the road so they could write between performances.

While they were still working on Hair, Rado got the male lead in a Broadway musical called Hallelujah, Baby! His photo even appeared in the New York Post with the announcement he was to star, but he backed out and took a risk on his as-yet-unproduced show because it was his dream. At the time, everyone except Rado and Ragni thought it was a stupid move. The words ‘you’ll never work in this town again’ were uttered by everybody! says Rado. “They continued to say that even after Hair," he adds "especially after Hair.

Tags: Theater

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