How we made Hair

‘Some of the cast ate some pot brownies one night and ended up hanging on to each other saying: “Where is the audience? Which way is up?”’

James Rado, co-writer

I was in a play on Broadway that got such bad reviews it opened and closed on the same night. I had been cast opposite an actor called Gerry Ragni and told him about my dream of writing a musical. It was the mid-60s, a time when hippies were appearing in the East Village. They seemed like creatures from outer space, so open, loving and beautiful. They touched our hearts. The anti-Vietnam-war protests on the streets were dramatic and thrilling. Gerry and I thought we could write a show about all this.

I’d seen a painting at the Whitney Museum, of a comb holding a clump of hair that had been pulled out. It was just called Hair – and that gave us the title for our musical. Galt MacDermot, our composer, set everything to music, even the stage directions – unlike Herbie Hancock, who was asked to write music for one of our songs, and returned it with half the lyrics cut.

Fate seemed to be at work with the show. Gerry was on a train one day when he met the producer Joseph Papp, who had a new venue in New York, the Public Theater, and needed a show to open it. Two weeks later, we had the job.

The show needed actors with long hair but there was no such thing at the time, so we would approach suitable people in the street, tap them on the shoulder and say: “Excuse me, do you sing?” The songs we’d written really pushed the envelope and there was a mood of permissiveness among the actors, too. Once the show moved to Broadway, there was more and more drug use backstage. Whenever the fire marshal came round, the stage manager would get on the intercom and say: “Marti Whitehead, please report to the stage manager’s desk.” Then everyone knew to throw their joints away.

James Rado, left, and Gerome Ragni in 1968.
James Rado, left, and Gerome Ragni in 1968. Photograph: Larry Ellis/Getty Images

The Public Theater wouldn’t let us do the nude scene, but our Broadway director Tom O’Horgan was all in favour. In fact, he changed it so that instead of just two people, the entire cast took their clothes off. I played Claude, the leader of the hippies, and Gerry played Berger, a free spirit – until we got fired from our own show. The play had opened a production in Los Angeles and we went over to visit, watching from the back of the theatre. We decided to take our clothes off during the interval and walk down the aisle naked.

The producer heard about it and decided we were a liability. When we flew back to New York, we’d been fired and there were armed guards on the door of the theatre keeping us out. So we wrote on a bedsheet “We want our baby back!” and picketed the theatre. They let us back on stage eventually.

After that, Gerry and I started fighting more and more. It had become too intense: we had to get away from each other. But we found our way back to each other as friends, even writing a second show called Sun, which has never been produced. Maybe someone will put it on before I die.

Shelley Plimpton, Crissy

It was a wonderful, exciting time. Everything was changing. I was working at the Night Owl Cafe in the Village when Jim and Gerry came in looking for musicians. I had long hair and was innocent-looking, and they asked if I could sing, dance or act. I said: “No. Who are you?” My friend talked me into auditioning so I sang With a Little Help from My Friends. They liked it, but they didn’t have a role for me – so they wrote a song, Frank Mills, for me instead.

Good times … Shelley Plimpton on tambourine at New York’s Night Owl Cafe, c.1966.
Good times … Shelley Plimpton on tambourine at New York’s Night Owl Cafe, circa 1966. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Jim and Gerry were yin and yang: Gerry was outgoing and wacky, Jim quiet and thoughtful. Galt was the grownup in the room. We became like a close-knit family – a tribe, as we called it. The nude scene didn’t bother us: we weren’t shy about our bodies. We were anti-war, of course, and went on the anti-Vietnam marches and to be-ins at the park. But they said we hated the soldiers, which just wasn’t true.

One night Keith Carradine [father of Shelley’s daughter Martha] made some pot brownies and brought them in. A lot of the cast ate some, as well as the sound man and the lighting guy. It was kind of an interesting show after that. We all had to hang on to one another: “Where is the audience? What am I doing? Which way is up?”

Martha was born in 1970. When I began to show, they had me play the part of the pregnant girl, Jeanie. That was a lot of fun, but it became too dangerous because she has to go up a ladder. After Martha was born, she’d be backstage with me. Many stage managers have held her while I sang Frank Mills.

A lot of the show is about masculinity and male friendship. Heather MacRae – who played Sheila, the woman caught in a love triangle with Claude and Berger – was magnificent. I remember sharing a dressing room with Diane Keaton and Melba Moore, too. They were getting their careers together while I was just having a good time. I never felt like acting was my calling.

  • The 50th-anniversary production Hair the Musical tours the UK from 21 March.

  • This article was amended on 15 March 2019 because an earlier version referred to Hair’s director as Tim Horgan instead of Tom O’Horgan.


Interviews by Emma John

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘We even performed it in front of the pope!’ – how we made Godspell
‘Religious groups didn’t like Jesus wearing a Superman shirt or the lack of a resurrection. So we told them the curtain call was the resurrection – when Jesus runs on and takes a bow’

Interviews by Chris Wiegand

10, May, 2021 @3:59 PM

Article image
Julie Taymor: how we made The Lion King musical
‘The sheer idea of having a stampede on stage was exciting – the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff’

Interviews by Chris Wiegand

22, Oct, 2019 @5:01 AM

Article image
‘They changed my ending, I felt aghast’: how we made Wicked
‘I once performed Defying Gravity at the White House within spitting distance of the Obamas,’ says Idina Menzel. ‘In fact, I might actually have spat on them’

Interviews by Chris Wiegand

27, Sep, 2021 @1:26 PM

Article image
Sylvia: the suffragettes giving musicals a kick in the ballots
It sets history to hip-hop and has a diverse cast – but Sylvia is not riding on the coattails of Hamilton, says its director Kate Prince. Instead its heroine marches to a beat all her own

Lyndsey Winship

30, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
A midsummer night's sax comedy: the return of the lost Shakespeare jazz musical
It had the hottest musicians, the coolest singers – and Louis Armstrong playing Bottom. But Swingin’ the Dream was a $2m flop. Can the RSC breathe new life into this big band take on the bard?

James Shapiro

06, Jan, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
How we made West Side Story
‘I wanted to be the first guy to use a four-letter word in a musical – but the line ended up as “krup you” instead’

Interviews by Chris Wiegand

18, Sep, 2017 @2:14 PM

Article image
'Our memories have vanished': the Palestinian theatre destroyed in a bomb strike
The Said al-Mishal Centre brought theatre, dance and music to the beleaguered residents of Gaza City. Its destruction in an Israeli air strike has sparked outrage – and dealt a heavy blow to Palestinian culture

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City and Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

22, Aug, 2018 @1:28 PM

Article image
'The violence should be tangible' – Ivo van Hove on roughing up West Side Story
Songs have been dropped, dance routines booted out and the street-fights look nasty. This is a West Side Story for the Trump era, says the avant-garde superstar director

Alexis Soloski

17, Feb, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
'He was high-brow, low-brow, every-brow!' – the genius of Leonard Bernstein
Composer, conductor, inspiration, FBI suspect … Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this August, and this summer’s Proms will celebrate his work. Musicians, critics and his own family remember an astounding talent

Interviews by Imogen Tilden, Fiona Maddocks

12, Jul, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Beth Ditto: how we made Gossip's Standing in the Way of Control
‘The lyrics came out in a two-minute splurge. I drew on personal experiences, like growing up in the Bible Belt and being labelled a bitch’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

15, Jul, 2019 @3:50 PM