All sorts of factors go into picking a Broadway show’s opening night, but April 29, 1968, is very likely the only one to have been selected by the producer’s astrologer.
It was 50 years ago this week that all signs pointed to a propitious debut for the era-defining “Hair” at the Biltmore Theater. The “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” as it was known, quickly became an inescapable part of American culture. Audiences would flock to the Biltmore — and, in a tradition that continues to this day, storm the stage and dance with the cast during the curtain call — for an alternately ebullient and harrowing primer in hippiedom.
Everyone — the 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night and “Sesame Street,” to name a few — covered songs like “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine.” The Broadway cast recording spent 13 weeks on top of the Billboard charts, and Ebony magazine called it “the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of the American theater.” (A brief, dimly lit nude scene at the end of Act 1 didn’t hurt its popularity, either.)
But not everyone was won over by its raw language and irreverent treatment of the American flag. Leonard Bernstein walked out of the production, as did two of the three Apollo 13 astronauts. When touring companies of the anti-Vietnam War show headed into the heartland, the actors brought an eight-page pamphlet advising “what to do if you are detained, harassed or arrested by the police.” Two separate United States Supreme Court cases dealt with attempts to shut down productions.
James Rado and Gerome Ragni could hardly have expected this response in late 1964 when they started writing material on their Hoboken landlord’s typewriter. At the time, hippies didn’t even exist — at least not by that name: The word “hippie” first surfaced in a San Francisco newspaper article a few months later. But their creation, augmented enormously by the addition of the composer Galt MacDermot, did as much as anything to define the subculture for mainstream America.
Despite its huge success at Mr. Papp’s downtown space, the transfer to Broadway was hardly a fait accompli. More than a dozen new songs were added, and the new version went into rehearsals before a theater had even been secured. In fact, almost two weeks after opening night, the director Tom O’Horgan was still casting new actors. Even the open-minded “Hair” producers drew the line at Mr. O’Horgan’s plan to have the cast members, who included the likes of Diane Keaton and Melba Moore, take up residence in the Biltmore.
As I did research for my 2010 book, “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation,” I heard again and again from actors, directors and designers who said their lives had been changed by “Hair.”