Let the sun shine in
'Hair' co-creator James Rado on the SF-bound revival
by Richard Dodds
As soon as this interview was over, James Rado had to fly out the door. "I'm meeting a friend to help occupy Wall Street right now," he said from his New Jersey home across the Hudson from Manhattan. At age 79, the co-creator and one of the original Broadway stars of Hair is feeling a return of some of the counterculture energy that defined a generation more than four decades ago and helped turn Hair into one of the icons of that period.
That, and maybe a poignancy for the days when it seemed the world could change if enough people embraced harmony and understanding, has made the time right for a successful revival of Hair. What began as an idea for a concert version to celebrate the musical's 40th anniversary became a full-blown production directed by Diane Paulus as part of New York Public Theatre's 2008 summer series in Central Park. The public and critical reception was so enthusiastic that the production moved to Broadway for a long run before setting out on a national tour that arrives at the Golden Gate Theatre on Oct. 25.
Rado, who co-authored the musical's book and lyrics with the late Gerome Ragni, and with music by Galt MacDermot, had never really let go of Hair in all the years since it made Broadway history. "But I've become liberated from it through this production because I feel we've achieved what we had always wanted to do," he said. "It's kind of perfect now."
But making changes in any theatrical property once it's been signed, sealed, and licensed is not easy even if you wrote it. "I had been working on the text over the years, and suddenly people were getting nervous about me departing from a show that had been immensely successful," Rado said. That included Tams-Witmark, the theatrical licensing company, which insisted that the new production not veer from the material it holds in its vaults.
"I snuck a revision to the Public Theatre, but then we had to go back to the original version," Rado said. "But some of my stuff still got snuck in as well. My goal was to make the story much more apparent, to create a through-line for a modern-day audience."
That basic story, which runs through many detours, focuses on the characters Claude (Rado's role in the original Broadway production) and Burger (played by co-author Ragni). The more free-spirited Burger is trying to convince Claude that he should evade the draft, which will lead to certain deployment in Vietnam, while trying to convince himself that the turn-on-drop-out party will never end as various members of the Tribe, as the cast is called, reflect on issues both personal and political.
The main characters vaguely mirrored Rado and Ragni themselves, with Rado having set out for a traditional acting career after a stint in the Navy, while Ragni was more into the downtown theater scene. Their relationship was both professional and deeply personal, though the only label Rado is willing to apply to himself is "omnisexual."
"The thing about Gerry and I is that we had a deep love for each other," Rado said. "It went beyond the physical. And that's what's at the core of the show. In the current production, there is a lot of physical touching between Claude and Burger, which we didn't have in the original. I think that is very liberating."
The new revival wasn't the first try at bringing Hair back to Broadway. A 10th anniversary edition managed only 43 performances (in contrast to the original's 1,750 and the revival's 586). "It fizzled," Rado said. "It was a very strange period. First of all, we could not find any male actors with long hair, so everybody had to wear a wig. And then we had to replace the actors playing Burger and Claude during previews, and the people we ended up with were not satisfactory at all."
It may also have lacked the sincerity communicated by the original cast, and that seems to have been recaptured in the new production. "I remember that [New York Times critic] Clive Barnes said back in 1967 that the Tribe was like 'peppy little protons.' It was this energy, this sincerity, this belief in ideals that the audience could feel. I think we have that again."
While Hair has dominated Rado's life for the past 40-plus years, he's still a working writer. He will introduce a recording in a darkened theater of the musical Sun, which he began with Ragni, as part of New York's Howl Festival this month, and still hopes the show described as "a comic-Orwellian epic struggle between the nuclear gods and the natural gods" will eventually receive a live staging. And he has a producer committed to a workshop production of American Soldier that he described as a "political, fantastical musical about a soldier returning from Iraq who goes to the White House to see the president."
But first there was the immediate matter of getting to Manhattan so he could participate in the Occupy Wall Street protest. "They're talking about the corruption of the system," Rado said. "I wish we could say things have changed since we first wrote Hair, but still you can't stop trying. At least, I can't."