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.




In the mid '60s, a radical rock musical about pansexual, antiwar hippies with a multiracial cast was a tough sell on “the Great White Way.” After knocking on every Broadway producer’s door and being turned away, Ragni’s chance meeting with Joe Papp -- on a train back from Yale, where Papp was teaching a course on Shakespeare and Ragni was performing in a play -- turned the tide. After 13 years of Shakespeare in the Park, Papp decided to book Hair to open his new Public Theater, which has since become a revered cultural institution.

Ironically, for two guys writing a hippie musical called Hair, “we had short hair when we started writing it,” says Rado, but they stopped cutting it and let it grow. “Jerry had no idea what would happen, because he had never in his life let his hair grow, as most guys hadn’t. When he let it grow, it was huge -- it just didn’t stop growing. Just huge, tremendous locks. I was very jealous of that …. My hair would not grow out that way.”

The show’s pansexual sensuality mirrors what was going on in the hippie scene at the time. “To have intimations of these kinds of other relationships on stage, rather than just boy meets girl,” says Rado, “that was just very organic to what we were writing about: the hippie scene. It was truly about men loving each other as opposed to fighting each other.”

While hanging around in hippie communities, Rado had experiences that were very new, such as open affection between men, which was very different from the cultural norm at the time. According to Rado, ”The hippie scene was very free. [There was] male-to-male bonding and hugging and being very affectionate. There was a wonderful warmth in the hippie atmosphere, a sense of freedom. Men would just come up to you and take you in their arms, and it was so freeing and felt so good. It’s a psychological truth that had been so blocked from human behavior.”

At the center of Hair’s pansexual tribe is a bisexual love triangle between the characters of Berger, Sheila, and Claude. But it becomes clear that the central love relationship in the show is between Claude and Berger, the characters based on Rado and Ragni, whom they ended up playing on stage on a nightly basis.

“It made a point of the love between two men -- not only two men, but there were very strong male relationships written into the play,” says Rado “Claude and Berger have a strong tie, but Berger has this sidekick, Woof, and Woof has his sidekick. There’s a whole bunch of male relationships in addition to the traditional male-female love stories. We have the Sheila and Jeannie love stories with Claude and Berger. But we also have other things happening. Girls with girls, boys with boys as part of the tribal behavior and also the characters of Claude and Berger. With all people in the tribe there was affection and physicality. And that was something very, very new: that kind of behavior on a stage.”

The infamous nude scene in Hair was inspired by an event that took place during a Be-In in Central Park that attracted a crowd of 10,000. “These two guys in the midst took their clothes off, and everybody was just amazed and astounded, just like an audience,” says Rado. “It sent them into this incredible place they had never been before.” Apparently, a plainclothesman, rushed out to inform the mounted police who were circling the crowd on horseback. “Thirty policemen on 30 horses moved in on the crowd to arrest somebody. But the crowd turned to the policemen and started chanting ‘We love cops, we love cops.’ As they were chanting this, the two guys who had taken their clothes off, disappeared into the crowd and put their clothes on. So there was no one arrested. It was the perfect hippie happening, and we felt it had to be in the play.”

The fact that nudity had never been done on the Broadway stage before did not deter Rado. “We wanted frontal. We wanted it all up front,” he says. “We wanted to excite the audience and go places they hadn’t been before.”

Joe Papp nixed the nude scene for the original Public Theater production. When they rewrote Hair for Broadway, they wanted to put it back in. There was a statute on the books in New York City that said nudity was permitted on stage as long as the actors weren’t moving. Which is why, back in the 60’s and 70’s, the whole cast stood on stage together in a row, nude and perfectly still. Today, they are free to sway to the music.

Tags: Theater