Hair in 1968: memories from the cast, the fans & the outraged

01 September 2005 ( 01 October 2018 )

When the musical Hair opened in the late Sixties, its catchy but controversial songs and famous scene of mass nudity generated hysterical delight and some condemnation. After 37 years, every night a production is staged somewhere in the world. In 2005, Carinthia West spoke to those involved – the cast, the fans and the outraged – who first let the sunshine in, and we're revisiting it today because it's never really got old...

The American “tribal love-rock” musical Hair exploded on to stages in New York and London 37 years ago, to both furious and ecstatic reviews. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation poet, wrote, “1968 was the year when the stand-off between the generations finally erupted into the open,” and Hair became a theatrical anthem for rebellious youth. In a year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Mai Lai massacre and the Tet offensive in Vietnam, student riots in Paris and London, racial riots in Los Angeles, and violent protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, there was a lot to shout about.

Hair was originally produced off-Broadway by Joseph Papp (where Clive Barnes, theatre critic for the New York Times, dubbed it a “mood picture of a generation”), before moving to both Broadway and the Shaftesbury Theatre in London.

Written by two young American actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and brought to the stage by the enigmatic producer Michael Butler, its simple, romantic story line hid a much deeper vein, covering subjects from opposition to the Vietnam War, theology, the right to free love, sex, and free thinking. Its lyrical songs, like Aquarius, Ain’t Got No, and Good Morning Starshine caught the public imagination and have since been covered by scores of major recording artists, from Nina Simone to Mantovani, and used in TV ads – most recently for Ford. It is credited with kick-starting more acting and singing careers than any other musical (Elaine Page, Diane Keaton and Marsha Hunt, to name just a few).

Back then, the cast were all in their early twenties, mostly unknowns, multi-talented, multiracial, good-looking, and drawn from backgrounds as diverse as Oxford and the streets of Harlem.

“Protesting, laughing, fighting, loving, rebel-without-causing, these young people spill across the stage with a sprawling, grinning arrogance,” wrote Clive Barnes. “They seem to believe totally in what they are doing.”

Of course, not everyone liked it. It polarised attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, uniting the standard-bearers of Christian values and right-wing thinkers, from Mary Whitehouse to the John Birch Society. Two astronauts from Apollo 13 walked out of the show in New York in protest against a scene featuring the American flag. (“The American flag is not desecrated, but it is used in a manner that not everyone would call respectful,” warned Barnes.)

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In London, Harold Wilson’s government abolished the office of Lord Chamberlain and his powers of censorship on September 26, and an unexpurgated Hair opened the following day. Even so, the 20-second nude scene shocked a theatre-going public more used to Sir Laurence Olivier, who was then directing Love’s Labours Lost at the National.

Audiences flocked to Hair, some went back night after night, and everyone from royalty to rock’n’roll stars overcame their English inhibitions to climb on to the stage and dance with the cast at the end of the show. It was the first “interactive” rock musical to make a commercial impact, and retains a unique place in the history of theatre.

Annabel Leventon, actress and singer, played Sheila Franklin in London and Paris, 1968-1970

I saw it on Broadway and thought “I’ll do anything to be part of this, I’ll be an usherette, anything.” My agent said, “Don’t go for that, it’s rubbish,” but back in London the only part left was the girl lead. I got it. It was an incredibly concentrated rehearsal period. We only had two days for previews and then we opened on the third day to rave reviews. There was a headline about me that read “Oxford graduate in hippie nude show”.

The director, Tom O’Horgan, gave each of us personal choice to do the nude scene. We all chose to do it. For me it represented human vulnerability.

Michael Butler, producer of original Broadway production in 1968

The London production started because Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, called me and said: “I want you to let my friend, Robert Stigwood, put on Hair.” I wasn’t involved with the pre-production, but I went to London for the opening. I was staying at the Dorchester with a few friends, and had sent my only shoes out to be polished. The Dorchester lost them, and as I was size 13, we couldn’t get another pair. I said, “Right, I’m going barefoot to the show,” so we all went without shoes. The London production was a great success. To this day, I say to Ahmet Ertegun, “You owe me one.”

I believed in Hair very strongly because of the politics. At one time we had 17 lawyers on different cases defending freedom, once even to the Supreme Court. We won them all. There were threats on my life and I was listed on Nixon’s enemy list. But every night somewhere in the world Hair is being performed. It is the most recorded musical in history. It started out as an anti-war piece and Hair played to people who were deeply concerned with the state of the nation. The Vietnam War was as unpopular as the Iraq invasion. That was its message. Now it’s a machine.

Ian Gordon, investment banker in 1968 and backer of original London production

I was 28 years old at the time, and I had the opportunity to put some money into this “rock musical”. On the opening night I thought, “Oh God, I’ve never seen such rubbish. I’ve lost my shirt.” The following morning, I opened the papers and realised it would be the most enormous hit. I made my investment back several times over.

Oliver Tobias, actor/singer/director. He played Berger, the second lead, in the 1968 London production and directed subsequent productions in Holland and Israel

I realised it was going to be huge on the opening night. The audience danced down the aisles and into the street. It was really exciting. Audiences had never experienced anything like it before. The message was naive and direct, representing what youth was thinking about issues like the Vietnam War. We had attitude then, lots of attitude!

Richard Digby Day, director, on Kenneth Tynan, Oh! Calcutta! and Hair (1969)

There was a sort of explosion that happened immediately after the end of the Lord Chamberlain, with things like Oh! Calcutta!, devised by Kenneth Tynan, and Hair. I found Oh! Calcutta! rather boring and Hair fabulously liberating, joyful and affirmative. I remember Hair much more clearly than Oh! Calcutta!

Clive Barnes, New York Times, April 30, 1968

I have had a number of letters from people who have seen previews asking me to warn readers. Spell it out I cannot, for this remains a family newspaper.

Paul Nicholas, actor/singer/producer, played the lead, Claude, in London, 1968

The producers couldn’t get the nude scene and the four-letter words past the Lord Chamberlain’s office, so we were all put on retainers until the office of Lord Chamberlain was abolished. Even then, it was controversial. We had to sing Sodomy, which lists all the perversions, as if we were in a church. If anyone in the audience left, it was always the English during Sodomy and the Americans during a scene where we folded the American flag.

The producers were so keen to retain our energy throughout the show they arranged for an American doctor to give us vitamin B injections, so we all lined up for these vitamin B jabs, off the same needle! It would be unthinkable now. I think it was speed anyway. I was certainly speeding!

I found out what I wanted to do because of Hair. Afterwards, I went on to play Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and that wasn’t a barrel of laughs. Someone in the audience sneezed, and I ad-libbed “God bless you my son,” which got a few laughs, but it was nothing like the laughs we had performing Hair.

Dick Sinnott, chief of Licensing Bureau for Boston and unofficial ‘city censor’ after attending the first preview in Boston, February 1970

I had the misfortune of viewing the worst collection of garbage ever seen on a Boston theatre stage. I understand it is billed as a “love-rock musical”. What I saw highlighted hostility and hate. If this is art then heaven help the theatre. However, I am powerless to stop it. Although it violates every vestige of decency, it apparently doesn’t violate any law.

Rohan McCullough, actress/singer/dancer in the 1968 London production

The technical run was on my 21st birthday. I had to climb scaffolding on the side of the stage and look down on the rest of the cast. Suddenly I realised what it meant. It was really thrilling. However, I remember hating the publicity. I had been to school with Princess Anne, and when she came to see the show, I spoke to her. I was then astonished by the fuss the photographers made. I was so totally naive, we all were.

The nude scene was exhausting. After very strenuous dancing, you had to get your sweaty clothes off in the space of a few bars of music while lying down under a canvas floor-cloth! Then you stood up.

I seem to remember that the audience dancing with the cast after the show started by accident. Zsa Zsa Gabor ran up on stage in a flouncy white dress and fell at my feet. The audience responded to this wild, crazy blonde and followed her. After that, it became a dancing party every night.

Jo Durden-Smith, producer of a Granada Television documentary on Hair, 1968

Hair seemed to me a brilliant continuation of what was going on in the streets. I’d been working on political documentaries and felt a bit jaded. It had a sort of counter-culture bounce, immediacy and style.

Leslie Woodhead, director of documentary on Hair, 1968

We shot the last two weeks of the London rehearsals of Hair. It had a shining resonance. I remember the director made the cast write “F*CK” all over the walls of the Shaftesbury Theatre until the horrified management wiped it off. Otherwise I can’t remember a thing about it.

Tom O’Horgan director of the London production

I think that the famed nude scene has been greatly over-emphasised. It has very little importance in the show itself and much of the publicity for that has obscured the important aspects of the show.

Major Basil Heaton, veteran of D-Day. Saw London production in 1970

I was persuaded to go by my wife and two teenage daughters. I’ve never seen anything so beastly. I didn’t like the blatant sexuality, the nudity or the suggestive songs. I was worried about my daughters but they seemed to take it in their stride, and we all danced on stage at the end. I left feeling that the children had enjoyed it, but I know my wife and I didn’t.

Chris Jagger, actor/singer/musician/journalist, performed in touring company of Hair that went to Israel in 1971, directed by Oliver Tobais

In Tel Aviv we had to sing all the songs in Hebrew. There were innumerable rows over pronunciation. Try singing Let The Sun Shine In in Hebrew! I said something rude to one of the Israeli producers which was misconstrued as anti-Semitic. All hell broke loose and I got sacked. The cast protested and I was reinstated at twice the pay!

David Jenkins, journalist

A snooty left-wing press at the time disapproved of Hair because Princess Anne dancing on stage was a clear demonstration of its ‘fascist’ tendencies.

Julian Littman, actor/musical director, in Old Vic production, 1993

1993 was possibly the worst time to put on a production of Hair, because by then free love equalled Aids and drugs meant heroin, so it no longer had that pop ethos behind it. Also, we had a cast of “Thatcher’s children” who didn’t really get it.

Ruby Wax, actress and self-confessed groupie during US production of Hair

I went to see the Chicago production every single night. I knew every song. I slept with everybody, well actually I got the gay guys, and ended up with the lead guitarist. I couldn’t sing, so it was the only way I could get in it. My mother would always know where to find me because I’d be dancing on the stage every night.

Michael Deeley, film producer, speaking about the 1979 film version directed by Milos Forman

A highly exciting theatrical piece which turned into a very dreary movie.

Elaine Paige as told to Angie Davidson

“My first West End role was in Hair. One of the main scenes was the nude scene and though it wasn’t compulsory, everyone took part, except me. Taking one’s clothes off on stage was highly embarrassing. I was teased by my contemporaries for being a wimp so in the end there was nothing else for it but to join the happy band. Eventually with the help of a tall dark handsome man in the company who held my hand for moral support I truly became one of the tribe. A full cast, present, correct and naked.”

Steve Mann, ‘alternative’ journalist and amateur anarchist at the time of Hair in 1968 (as quoted in Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life)

When Hair opened, we all got very upset. We thought, “These people are making an awful lot of money out of the hippies, and we want some.” We felt it would be very nice if they contributed 1% of their weekly take to underground groups. This was proposed to them, but they turned it down. I had these smoke flares, so every so often I’d burst through the exit doors of the theatre, lob a smoke flare into the audience, and run out.

The Wall Street Journal September 1974

In the six and a half years since it opened, Hair has been seen by nearly 30 million people. At one point the combined gross from the companies playing in the US alone was $400,000 a week.

Bruce Robinson, writer of Withnail and I, saw Hair three times

“The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” was followed by The Dawning of the Age of Thatcher, followed swiftly by the Dawning of the Age of Blair.

Tali Pelman, 26-year-old producer of a 2005 Gate Theatre (London) production of Hair

We were looking for an American play brave enough to ask the political questions that the disillusioned young are asking today. Questioning a war felt very familiar! We felt that staging a production of Hair would be incredibly relevant today, although it’s a risky theatrical event for us to do. When was the last time you heard someone sing without a microphone?

Commissioner Gilbert Abadie, Commanding Officer of the Armée du Salut, a Christian organisation in France, after he and a platoon of followers stopped the show in Paris 1970

It is no censorship to forbid a show that abandons 40,000 years of civilisation to return to the cave.

Taken from The New York Times – ‘Salvation Army jousts with Hair in Paris’ Feb 2, 1970

When 150 Salvation Army troops marched past at matinee time, bearing placards such as “Porno Publications Into The Fire”, some 30 young extremists greeted them with obscene gestures. Then the youths turned and pushed into the theatre. They demanded that the show be free.

Annabel Leventon

In Paris, they were singing Sodomy as Berger pulled a crucifix from his crutch, and a man from the Salvation Army blew his whistle and lots more of them stood up and stopped the show. We invited them up on stage, of course. It was grist to our mill!

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