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How does 'Hair' still bring in the bread, man?

In 1968, the squares thought it 'perverted', and to the kids it was phony.

When the "tribal rock musical" Hair opened at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway on 29 April 1968, it offered a resounding endorsement of all the values that had been forged by America's idealistic young. A series of song-led sketches, it followed the fortunes of an innocent young man, Claude, on the brink of being drafted into the Vietnam War, who falls in with a colourful bunch of free-loving, astrology-digging, psychedelic-using freaks and hippies. The war was the catalyst, but above all, the show urged its audiences to be like the hippies: abandon the love of money and seek deeper spiritual rewards.

It made a fortune. According to the business magazine Forbes, in its first two years Hair was seen by four million people and grossed more than $22m. By the early 1990s, its various US productions had grossed in excess of $80m, with at least as much again from overseas box offices. Its fortunes slumped in recent times, but the 2009 New York revival won raves, earned back its initial costs of about $5.5m dollars in less than six months, and is now on its jingle-jangle way to the UK.

Though remarkable, this enduring financial triumph is just one of the ways in which Hair the phenomenon is more interesting than Hair the show. In musical terms, it can hardly be judged a classic. What does Hair have to offer? "The Age of Aquarius", OK, and perhaps the Nina Simone version of "Ain't Got No". Anything else? The hugely irritating "Good Morning Starshine" ("You twinkle above us, we twinkle below..."; oh, please) or the dull "Let the Sunshine In". Leonard Bernstein, by the way, attended the Biltmore show and hated it; as did Burt Bacharach. And Richard Rodgers. And John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. And, according to some, John Lennon...

That short roll-call of very different talents who despised the thing indicates one of the huge problems Hair was facing. It was shot at by both sides. To conservative tastes, Hair was, in the words of a Daily News review, "vulgar, perverted, tasteless, cheap, cynical, offensive and generally lousy", a litany to which other reviewers added the terms blasphemous, anti-American, seditious, prurient and obscene. But to those already on the side of the counterculture, Hair looked and sounded phony. The critic for the underground East Village Other was as splenetic as his redneck counterparts: "Hair makes me sick... up here on stage for two-and-a-half hours is an ersatz tribe of loving, rocking, musical, hairy, quasi-hip people."

"Ersatz" must have been the most wounding of all the insults. Of all the show's large, unusually young cast, only three actors were prepared to describe themselves as "hippies". And the show's creators – full marks if you can name them now without cheating – appeared every bit as square as the East Village Other insinuated. Someone who met them at the time said that the two writers, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, were clean-cut guys, as straight as straight could be.

But the buttoned-down look was deceptive. Their shared background in serious theatre had gradually led them away from the mainstream and into hairier zones. Ragni's earlier credits had involved a part in the 1964 John Gielgud-Richard Burton production of Hamlet; by this time, he had already been part of the radical Open Theater group, and was talent-spotted by no less a theatrical shaman than Peter Brook. Rado's ambition had been to write musicals in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein mode, and he continued tinkering with such projects while pursuing a Broadway career as a leading actor.

Ragni began to loosen up his friend's theatrical ideas. Forget Stanislavski, forget even Brecht: the names Artaud and Grotowski were the new shibboleths. In place of narrative, ritual. In place of well-rounded character, myth and archetypes. In place of entertainment, spirituality, ritual and transformation. Hair hardly lives up to this revolutionary agenda, but it would have been unthinkable without its influence.

By the early months of 1965, "Jerry and Jim" both began to meet more and more long-hairs in and around Greenwich Village. They liked these youngsters, and spent months conducting interviews. By the summer of 1966, they had the first draft of a book and lyrics, and shopped around for a producer. Hal Prince, Robert Whitehead and David Merrick all said no. Then Ragni bumped into Joseph Papp, who liked it, and said that he would help them, provided that they found a proper composer.

They recruited a Canadian, Galt MacDermot. He had never written for the theatre, but he had a highly developed knowledge of African melodies and rhythms. Claiming that one of his influences was the music of the Bantu people, he produced an initial score in just two weeks. Meanwhile, Papp was negotiating for Hair to be the opening presentation for his new Public Theater. Papp was a man of lofty ambitions, and had plans for a new type of American theatre: he saw Hair as his Decla-ration of In-dependence.

Backstage, though, things were not happy. Jerry and Jim wanted their friend Tom O'Horgan to direct, but Papp was wary, partly because of O'Horgan's deep commitment to experimental methods. In the end, the job of director was given to the more pragmatic Gerald Freeman. Freeman has been both praised and damned for his work on the original book, but there seems little doubt that he gave it a clear narrative structure that had been lacking from both the early drafts and the big Broadway version. The show ran for a vexed, if exhilarating, eight weeks, then Papp turned his attention to the next Public Theater show. The Hair story might easily have ended there.

Instead, enter a champion, in the form of the wealthy, politically ambitious Michael Butler. Liberal in his sympathies, Butler was a particular advocate for the rights of native Americans. He had seen a poster for Hair that featured an image of Geronimo and Sitting Bull, and eagerly bought a ticket. Despite its lamentable lack of chieftains, Hair delighted him. With another vivid character, the art entrepreneur Bertrand Castelli (a sometime associate of Cocteau and Picasso) he bought up the rights, signed Tom O'Horgan to direct, made some hefty changes and introduced 13 new numbers (among them "Sodomy", "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" and "Colored Spade"), took the show to Broadway... and watched the millions pour in.

Much of the rest is well known. Jerry and Jim carried on writing musicals for a few years, but none ever came close to rivalling their debut. In 1972, Ragni and MacDermot collaborated on Dude, or The Highway Life; intended to "tear the theatre apart", it came close to tearing their careers apart, and closed after just 16 performances. As a solo writer-composer, Rado also created another anti-War show, Rainbow, which went the way of Dude. Galt MacDermot's other work of the time, Via Galactica, barely survived a week. Ragni, who died of cancer in 1991, seems to have found his sudden wealth traumatic, joined a Christian cult and gave away large sums to the Black Panthers. Rado has spent a good deal of time supervising new productions of Hair; neither he nor Ragni was best pleased with Milos Forman's 1979 film. MacDermot, now in his eighties, has thrived in other musical areas: his work, improbably, is a favourite for hip-hop samplers.

As for those who have admired this latest production of the old (anti-)war horse, they say it chimes with the present mood of the nation less because of its pacifist sentiments than with, well, a sense that naked greed isn't looking so charming these days. Besides, one must never underestimate the nostalgia of all those still-affluent baby-boomers who went to Woodstock, or like to say they did.

To conclude on a personal note: I am old enough to have seen the original London production of Hair as a schoolboy in the early 1970s, and recall being distinctly underwhelmed. You could see why Princess Anne had not been frightened to join in the cast-and-audience frugging at the end. The tunes sounded corny, the famous nude scene was coyly lit, and the wild staging, with actors swinging around on ropes and mingling with the audience... well, I had already been lucky enough to see the Brook Midsummer Night's Dream and 1789... Bah, humbug! I wish I had paid more attention to the cast, though, since the London production of Hair was the launch pad for many interesting careers, including those of Richard O'Brien and Tim Curry, soon to join forces for the Rocky Horror Show.

There was another aspect of Hair I should also have known about: it was the first fully integrated Broadway musical, with one-third of the original cast being African-American. Ebony magazine said that the show had been the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of the American stage. And for that, it surely deserves a great big slice of our 21st century respect. Hair signally failed to usher in the Age of Aquarius, but it did change the American stage, just a little bit, and via the stage, the world, just a little bit. Good Morning, Starshine!

'Hair' previews at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (tel 0844 482 5130, hairthe musical.co.uk), from 1 April

Bums on stage: Theatre and the censors

The London production of Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 27 September 1968 – the day on which the Theatres Act, 1968 came into force. The date was no coincidence. Before that time, the show's nude scene, profanities, references to drug use and sexual perversions were unstageable.

State control of the British stage dated back to 1737, when Walpole's administration, keen to clamp down on political satire, passed control of theatrical performances to the Lord Chamberlain, who vigorously resisted all attempts to concede any power.

In the wake of the Chatterley trial, it seemed increasingly ludicrous that Britain's most serious playwrights should be bowdlerised in this way, and spirited resistance began in the late 1950s, when theatres began to set themselves up as private clubs to escape prosecution.

The crunch really came with the 1965 Royal Court production of Edward Bond's Saved: the playwright refused to delete a scene in which a baby is stoned to death. Powerful forces gathered on both sides, and the days of the Chamberlain were obviously numbered. Puritan voices predicted a flood of filth in the West End, but the novelty of Oh! Calcutta-style nudity soon wore off, and in recent years, most "controversial" plays have run into censorship trouble not for flaunting the naked human body, but for outraging militant interest groups. Walpole would not have been surprised. KJ