'Hair': the politically correct rewrite: The Sixties sex and drugs anthem has been toned down for the Nineties. David Lister reports

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Meeting the creator of the Sixties peace and love musical Hair, it became clear why he has hardly ever given an interview. It might shatter too many illusions. Not only had Jim Rado never smoked a joint when he wrote the world's most famous drug anthems, but he has been hard at work making the paean to free love, with its on-stage nudity, more politically correct for the unpermissive Nineties.

Sociologists can speculate on why now is reckoned to be the right time to revive the show that epitomised the hippie philosophy and spawned numerous spaced-out songs extolling sex and drugs. Rado, pleasingly, cuts through the sociological jargon with admirable simplicity. 'In the late Seventies and Eighties, people wore their hair very short both in America and England. Now it seems to be getting longer again. The time is right.'

And so a new production, directed by Michael Bogdanov, opens at the Old Vic in September. But then again, the time is not altogether right. In the unpermissive Nineties, with justifiable fears over the free availability of love and hard drugs, can there be dancing in the aisles to songs titled 'Sodomy' and 'Hashish' or to a chorus of girls singing 'Black boys are so damn yummy, they satisfy my tummy'?

Yet listening to the rehearsal and casting one's mind back to the original, some changes appear to have crept in. 'Sodomy' has been retitled 'Holy Orgy'. Heroin and cocaine have mysteriously disappeared from the lyrics. The chant from 'Hashish' which went 'Hashish, cocaine, heroin, opium' has become 'hashish, Mary Jane, magic mushroom'. There is even a mention of organic mescaline. 'Walking In Space' the song about getting high, had the line 'tripping from potsville to mainline'. In the new version, 'mainline' becomes 'starlight'.

Has the unthinkable happened? Has Rado's rewriting made Hair politically correct?

'Politically correct? I hope not,' he replies. 'When we wrote the drug songs we were a little bit more naive about drugs. I didn't even know that mainline referred to heroin. So now I've changed them into soft drugs which were the authentic hippie drugs anyway.'

Almost matter-of-factly, he reveals something that should become a footnote in theatrical history, when asked if he lived the hippie lifestyle himself. None of the three writers of the druggiest songs in musical history had ever smoked a joint.

Could he be serious? 'Sure. We were theatre people really, rather than hippies. We wrote Hair without ever having done a drug. We didn't even drink. After we wrote the play we thought, 'we should try this marijuana'. It was kinda frightening.'

'We got the facts from doing research, hanging out in the Village, going on (anti-Vietnam) street protests. We were big on research.'

Watching Jim Rado enthuse at the first rehearsal for the West End revival of Hair, it was evident he did not need artificial stimulation to get high. The cast, including the pop singer Sinitta, were suitably animated as they went through one of the most tuneful and humorous scores of the past 30 years.

But their animation paled beside the exuberance of the guy with the T- shirt, jeans and sneakers and baseball cap on the wrong way round failing to cover his straggly long sandy hair. He leapt up, danced round the room, waved his arms wildly and sang so loudly he drowned the whole chorus.

Jim Rado was looking after his baby. Rado co-wrote the musical and in the first Broadway production in 1968, he played the lead, Claud, who exulted in his follicular prowess ('There's a home for the fleas in my hair, a home for fleas, a hive for bees, a nest for birds, there ain't no words for the beauty, the splendour, the wonder of my hair'). The astonishing thing about Hair is that the three writers of the witty and melodic score, Rado and his two friends Gerome Ragni and Galt McDermot, did not follow it with the expected string of musicals. What happened in those 25 years?

Rado becomes rather cagey about this, and it takes several attempts to get him to address the subject at all. Ragni, with whom he lived, died of cancer two years ago, and nursing him during that period had a devastating effect on Rado. For many of those years he supervised revivals of Hair around the world and has written 'huge numbers of songs' both alone, with Ragni and as a threesome. There is a musical called Sun, 'about the state of the environment, the planet, the rain forests' on which he worked with Ragni for 20 years. But that still begs the question, where were the follow-ups? Rado falls back more and more on a disjointed, hippie vocabulary in trying to account for the lost years.

'It became so intense. I won't go into personal things. Hair became such a pressure on our lives in the early Seventies that we went our separate ways for a time, then came back together again. When Gerry passed away, it was devastating because we were great friends, soulmates really.

'There should have been a string of musicals, it's true. Why didn't it happen? That's the difficult question. We were trying to top Hair. Maybe it just wasn't our time. Yes, they were frustrating years but we wrote a lot of wonderful stuff and it's sitting there. Yes, something went wrong. It's like a block with me. I'm not trying to hide, but it's almost fantastical. Nobody would understand what went into that time. Even I don't understand. I think we were exploring or groping for something.

'When you say 25 years, it doesn't seem like 25 years to me at all. It's like a dream, part nightmare. The fact that Gerry got sick. He was sick about a year. We were living together with a group of people in a communal situation. I was caring for him.' He is happier talking about the present and is convinced Hair still has a message, though again it is explained in Sixties terms. 'The audience gets something from it on a mystical level. It has to do with life and death. What is life? Is it worth living? What are the greatest potentials?'

Perhaps Rado, who must now be in his fifties but who will not reveal his age, ('as soon as people know, they put you at that age, and I want to stay young') is more of a hippie than he acknowledges. 'Our basic beliefs as human beings corresponded with the hippie philosophy at its best: the excitement of life, the coming together of people, the instant friendship, being nice, and peace and harmony and grand love. I still believe in that. It's the only way.'

(Photograph omitted)