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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Basic Biittner: A "Hairy" Anniversary

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Considering the nature of American pop culture and the tendency of the media to celebrate any anniversaries of cultural events, I was somewhat surprised to realize that a major American cultural event celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 and I don't remember seeing any mention of it.

I'm speaking of the Broadway debut, in April 1968, of "Hair," which was referred to then as a "Tribal Rock Musical."

The musical was the creation of a couple of young actors, James Rado and Gerome (Jerry) Ragni, and their aim was to celebrate the "youth culture" of the time, otherwise known as the "hippie" movement. Canadian composer Galt McDermott put their words to music, and a play, with a loose story, was born. The biggest fuss the play caused, and the most notoriety it received, was for the appearance of nude actors and actresses on stage for a brief time.

Most of us in the so-called "baby boomer" generation never actually saw the play, because getting to New York City was not something we did often. We were, however, influenced nonetheless by the music the play produced. Several songs from "Hair" became hit singles, performed by very "middle of the road" artists -- "Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)" by the 5th Dimension, "Easy to Be Hard" by Three Dog Night, "Good Morning Starshine" by Oliver and - believe it or not - "Hair," by the Cowsills (the inspiration for TV's Partridge Family). Several of the other songs in "Hair" were much more controversial, but those four were all good, solid pop songs, performed by a variety of pop artists.

I found myself thinking about "Hair" the other day when I realized I had the song "Manchester, England" (from Hair) bouncing around in my head, followed by another "Hair" song, "Frank Mills." Since lyrics have never been my strong suit, I dug around and found my cassette of the original Broadway soundtrack, so I could refresh my feeble memory. Well, I have been playing the tape for several days now and remembering many of the great songs from "Hair."

Among the performers in the original Broadway cast, by the way, was Diane Keaton, who, of course, went on to become an Academy-Award-winning actress who is now playing "mother" and "grandmother" roles; Melba Moore and Ronnie Dyson, both of whom went on to record several Grammy-nominated songs in the 1970's, and Paul Jabara, who would later write the Donna Summer hits "Last Dance" and "No More Tears," as well as the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men," were also original cast members. Galt McDermott, the composer of the music from "Hair," went on to a long, successful career as a composer, providing the music for several films, and much of his music has been "sampled" by several rap artists.

As it turned out, Rado and Ragni, the originators of the concept of "Hair" and the lead actors in the original production, were basically "one-hit wonders," failing to come anywhere near the success of "Hair" in any of their future endeavors. Rado, however, was involved in the production of many of the subsequent regional productions of "Hair" over a thirty-year period. Ragni died of cancer in the 1990's. I guess being a "one-hit wonder" isn't so bad, though. After all, it's one hit more than most of the rest of us have produced.

It took more than a decade for "Hair" to reach the silver screen, but when it did, in 1979, director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) produced a very good film, starring newcomers Treat Williams and Beverly D'Angelo and John Savage, who was fresh off the Academy-Award winning film "The Deer Hunter." The great music was still there too, but, unfortunately, by the time the movie reached the screen neither the "hippie era" nor movie musicals were in vogue, and the film version of "Hair" was not a success. At any rate, "Hair," the film, is available on DVD, and if you can find it, you might enjoy this slice of late-1960's American life.

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner