The lecture is part of "Made in Hoboken," the museum's year-long series that explores the history of invention, manufacturing, artistry, and craft in the mile-square city. Holly Metz coordinated the event.
"The fact that Hair's birth place is Hoboken makes me proud," Metz said last week. "When I walk down 10th Street, I like knowing that these two men wrote the play there. And it's nice to honor people who have done something in the place where they did it."
Most of us are familiar with 1979 Milos Forman incarnation of Hair starring Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D'Angelo. Hair, however, originated as Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, a live production that was first presented at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in the fall of 1967. Shortly after, on April 29, 1968, Hair began its Broadway run at the Biltmore Theater. The fourth longest-running production of the decade, Hair was on Broadway until July 1, 1972 and was nominated for several Tony Awards including best musical.
James Rado moved to Hoboken for its cheap rents in 1965, the same year that he and Gerome Ragni began working on Hair.
"I was basically an actor, but I always wanted to write musicals," said Rado, who still lives in Hoboken, Monday. "But if I tell you everything, I won't have anything left to say at the slide presentation. Maybe I should be more exclusive."
Rado was willing to divulge that he and Ragni were inspired by a group of hippies they encountered in Manhattan's East Village. "It was an emotional period," Rado said. "And [Hair] was really an emotional outpouring. It was about life and death and we had an urgent need to communicate that."
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Hair is the story of Claude, a young man who falls in love with a student protester named Sheila, experiments with drugs with his best friend Berger, and eventually ends up being drafted into the army. (In the movie version, Claude becomes a clean-cut Midwesterner who comes to New York to join the Army. On a visit to Central Park he meets a group of hippies, led by Berger, and falls in love with Sheila, a hippie from a wealthy family. To give Claude and Sheila more time together, Berger poses as Claude - with tragic results.)
In order to introduce Broadway to the energy they experienced in lower Manhattan, Rado and Ragni abandoned many of the conventions of a traditional musical. For instance, rather than sticking with the 15 or 16 songs typically found in most musicals, Hair consisted of 32 songs.
In her book, Letting Down My Hair: Two Years With the Love Rock Tribe, Lorrie Davis, an original cast member, describes the first production: "Hair never really had a starting point, or traditional opening. At 8:30 p.m., the time printed on the tickets, the cast was dispersed throughout the theater - in balconies on ramps, climbing the catwalks, in the orchestra, walking on the backs of seats, and even on stage. The idea was to create an immediate rapport with the audience; after all, the atmosphere of Hair was supposed to be Universal Love. The things we sometimes had to go through to do the show were incredible."
The musical began with Claude dressed in slacks, a polo shirt and a fur vest sitting cross-legged on stage. As the audience enters the theater, a burning grill was placed in front of Claude, and then the actors who were dispersed throughout the theater moved in slow motion towards the stage. In her book, Lorrie Davis recalls one night when there were two Claudes (James Rado and Steve Gamet) sitting on the stage. "The show was ready to start," she writes, "and they were both arguing about who would do the part. It took a great deal of coaxing from the stage manager and some members of the cast before Steve Gamet finally gave in."
With slight amusement, Rado recalled the night. "It was sort of a meditation duel to see who could last the longest," he said. "I won because I'm a very ornery type of person."
The play's unconventional structure was not its only break with tradition. The very subject matter, along with the allusions to drugs, was also shocking for the time. According to Lorrie Davis' account, in the original production, "Berger hands out 'joints' to the cast and everyone turns on (sometimes using the real thing). The stage lights are dimmed and the cast sings 'Walking in Space,' about tripping on drugs. This was one of my favorite parts of the show because I dug the music and enjoyed the dancing. Claude's trip begins."
And then there was the famous nude scene. After a month and a half on Broadway, Michael Butler, a director from Chicago, took over the direction of the play. Along with redesigning the sets and recasting several roles, he had the first act end in semi-darkness as the entire cast appeared on stage completely nude.
Despite its unorthodoxy, Hair received great reviews. At the time of its release, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote that Hair was "the first Broadway Musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday."
"People identified with the peace and love movement," Rado said. "It was so new and different and kooky."
The Hoboken Historical Museum is presenting "Hair" on Sunday, April 29 at 4 p.m. at the museum's new Shipyard space (1301 Hudson St., Hoboken), Seating is limited. To reserve a space call 656-2240.