April 29, 1968: ‘Hair’ Musical Has Broadway Opening

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It seems so innocuous now, but when it opened on April 29, 1968, Hair was seen as scandalous by many. It wasn’t just the nude scene, which lasted all of 20 seconds and took place under dim lights. The very idea of a Broadway show that celebrated the ideals of the hippies—peace, freedom, free love, drugs—scared and angered many of the staid theatergoers and critics and most often frequented the theater in those days. And that music! It wasn’t nice and sweet and sing-along-able like all the other musicals; this one used—oh no!—rock music! It was loud and some of the words were…dirty!

For rock, it as actually fairly watered-down. No one would confuse the music from Hair—the full, official title was Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical—with the raucous, post-psychedelic, ground-shaking rock that was dominating at the time. Still, even if it compromised, it was a start. The first rock musical remains one of the best the genre produced, and if some of its themes and then-radical notions seem tame in today’s crazy world, Hair did shake things up in the theater world measurably.

In its review, the New York Times wrote: “One enterprising lyric catalogues somewhat arcane sexual practices more familiar in the pages of the ‘Kama Sutra’ than The New York Times. So there – you have been warned. Oh yes, they also hand out flowers.”

The show’s book and lyrics were written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with music by Galt MacDermot. Hair opened at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater downtown in October 1967, then spent a couple of months at the rock nightclub Cheetah before being adapted for a full-on Broadway stage production. Its integrated cast, at one time or another, included such notables (or rising stars) as Ben Vereen, Barry McGuire, Vicki Sue Robinson, Melba Moore, Keith Carradine, La La Brooks (of the Crystals), Joe Butler (of the Lovin’ Spoonful), Peppy Castro (of the Blues Magoos) and a fellow who went by the unlikely name of Meat Loaf. Life had other things in store for that guy.

Watch the original cast perform on The Ed Sullivan Show

Hair was nominated for two Tony Awards—Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical. It ran for an impressive 1,750 performances on Broadway and spawned traveling companies that played London (for even longer than that) and points beyond. Hair can still be seen in regional and school versions today, albeit minus some of the more “shocking” content and visuals.

A scene from the original Hair in 1968

The music caught on in a big way—even among those who had never been anywhere near the Great White Way. The original cast album, produced by Andy Wiswell, sold some three million copies and ascended to #1 on the U.S. Billboard album chart exactly a year after the opening. The album won the 1969 Grammy for Best Score From an Original Cast Show Album.

Related: The #1 albums of 1969

Beyond that, Hair also spawned several hit singles by other artists. The Fifth Dimension took two songs from the show, “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In,” and combined them into a medley that went all the way to #1 on the singles chart, stayed there for six weeks and took the Record of the Year Grammy for 1970.

Related: What were the other top singles of 1969?

Watch the Fifth Dimension perform their hit medley of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”

Oliver, a North Carolina-born singer, had his first hit (#3) with the cheery “Good Morning Starshine.” Three Dog Night had a #4 single with “Easy to Be Hard” and the Cowsills went to #2 with their upbeat version of the show’s title song. (Notable about that one is a line explaining the then-prevalent preference for long hair: “It’s not for lack of bread, like the Grateful Dead.” The still underground Grateful Dead would, eventually, have more “bread” than they knew what to do with.)

Even after it closed on Broadway, Hair had plenty of life ahead. A 1979 film adaptation was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy. Thirty years later, in 2009, Hair returned to Broadway. If the sentiments were old news by then, you’d never know it: It was a hit all over again. The show won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical and was nominated for seven others.

Watch a scene from the original Broadway musical Hair on the 1969 Tony Awards

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3 Comments so far

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  1. Gill
    #1 Gill 29 April, 2021, 04:40

    I do wish this could be re done. I loved it when I saw it. Nottingham, not Broadway. Lol. There was going to be a new version a few years ago, but the company closed. Liquidation?

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  2. Sufi
    #2 Sufi 29 April, 2023, 00:55

    The original soundtrack—the first cut of it had the album cover pictured above—was the first LP I bought. Before that, I’d just been getting 45s. I loved that album, the music was sending a message I was digging big time. But my dad found it—I accidentally left it in the living room one time, instead of my bedroom, where I kept everything. He was quite horrified, and in retrospect, I can’t really blame him. He shouted out the one word of the sexual title, and also “Hashish.” “Do you know what these mean?” He was angry, and snapped my new LP over his knee. I was thinking…yes, I know what they are, and also that he was strong. But mostly, I was thinking, “Darn, now I have to save up again to buy the album again.” Which I did, but it wasn’t that same cover. I still have it, and it’s the plain red one. Exciting times for sure. I was all of 13/14 yo, and the change in the air was palpable. Glory days. Thank you. 🙂

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  3. muddywatersmann
    #3 muddywatersmann 30 April, 2024, 03:25

    Being an Aquarian astrologically, and a teenager of the 60’s, I loved this play and its music, and it’s values of freedom, global peace, love, and humanity have been central to me ever since…I saw the play in Minneapolis @ Tyrone Guthrie theatre, and it was thrilling, joyful and a reflection of those great times! I have been waiting ever since for the AGE OF AQUARIUS, which has finally arrived…better times ahead are coming…tho it seems impossible being where we are currently. I am hopeful for we need to live on Mother Earth in harmony and peace, and care for each other…

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