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Central Park Show Marks 40 Years of 'Hair'

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Central Park Show Marks 40 Years of 'Hair'

Pop Culture

Central Park Show Marks 40 Years of 'Hair'

Central Park Show Marks 40 Years of 'Hair'

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When the musical Hair opened 40 years ago, its spirit and music had a major influence on pop culture. New York's Public Theatre is presenting a concert version of Hair in Central Park this weekend.


The summer of love was over, but in the fall of 1967, a new musical tried to capture its essence. "Hair" began its run at a small theater in New York City. And as Jeff Lunden reports, it became an international sensation.

(Soundbite of musical "Hair")

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Gimme a head with hair. Long beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen.

JEFF LUNDEN: The "Hair" was getting longer. People were burning their draft cards to protest the war in Vietnam, rock 'n' roll was getting psychedelic, a whole counterculture was erupting. And it was all there onstage.

Mr. OSKAR EUSTIS (Artistic Director, Public Theatre): There aren't that many moments where the theater becomes that immediately, you feel like the theater is suddenly showing you the life around you.

LUNDEN: Oskar Eustis is artistic director of the Public Theatre where "Hair" had its premier 40 years ago this October. Back then, you could walk out the door and step right into the center of the hippie movement in the East Village. Eustis thinks "Hair" captured that moment perfectly.

Mr. EUSTIS: The amazing thing is that when it does happen, you don't feel like, oh, that's just like my life. You go, oh my God, that's like my life.

LUNDEN: "Hair" was a freewheeling, some say sloppy, collage of the counterculture. It used a lot of experimental theater techniques and actors mingled with the audience. There was a story of sorts with a central character named Claude who's torn between the hippie lifestyle and his sense of duty to his country. At the end of the play, he cuts his hair and is shipped off to Vietnam where, presumably, he's killed.

(Soundbite of song "Where Do I Go")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Where do I go. Follow the river. Where do I go. Follow the gulls.

LUNDEN: "Hair" was the brainchild of a couple of actors. The late Gerome Ragni and James Rado who says the two spent a lot of time down in the village.

Mr. JAMES RADO (Actor; Co-writer, "Hair"): We wanted to bring the message of peace and love and some of the ambiance of the hippie atmosphere, which was just amazing to be around. And the majority of people were never around it, so I think it was successful in that because people came to the theater and thought they were actually seeing hippies, real hippies onstage.

(Soundbite of song "I Got Life")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I got life, mother. I got laughs, sister. I got freedom, brother.

LUNDEN: Until he wrote this, composer Galt McDermott was one of those people who'd never met a hippie. So while Rado and Ragni handed him lyrics, they also gave him an education.

Mr. GALT McDERMOTT (Composer): So they explained. They took me down to the Village and I began to listen to it. But I wasn't paying much attention to the hippie movement, I was just interested in what they were writing because their lyrics were great.

(Soundbite of "5th Dimension-Age of Aquarius")

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) When the moon is in the Seventh House And Jupiter aligns with Mars.

LUNDEN: In six short months, "Hair" moved from the Public Theatre off Broadway to the Biltmore Theater on Broadway. It became a phenomenon and not just because many members of the cast took their clothes off at the end of the first act.

Natalie Moscow(ph) was 17 years old at that time making her Broadway debut. She wasn't in the chorus. She was a member of the hippie tribe.

Ms. NATALIE MOSCOW (Hippie): Well, everyone was in the tribe. The whole point is we were a unit. And there was a power in getting your message across if it was a collective message reaching the collective consciousness of the audience. And that was a very important part of a piece that was trying to address the growing consciousness about the illegality of the war in Vietnam.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: "Hair" ran for over four years on Broadway and companies sprouted up not just across the states, but around the globe. And at a time when music from Broadway seemed increasingly irrelevant, its rock tunes were all over the airwaves. The Broadway cast album was a bestseller and there were hit singles like the "5th Dimension's Age of Aquarius."

(Soundbite "5th Dimension-Age of Aquarius")

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, The Age of Aquarius.

LUNDEN: This weekend, the Public Theatre will be presenting a concert production of "Hair" for free in Central Park. Diane Paulus is directing the show and she says, in many respects, the show still feels fresh.

Ms. DIANE PAULUS (Director, 40th Anniversary Presentation of "Hair"): You know, the music doesn't feel dated. The music just feels like the funkiest music, the greatest rock 'n' roll, the greatest beat.

LUNDEN Galt McDermott will be playing keyboards on the bandstand this weekend and James Rado has been sitting in on rehearsals telling the young cast what it was like to live through the Age of Aquarius.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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