Like many people on that Saturday after the presidential inauguration, I saw a woman walking to a demonstration carrying a peace sign.
In one of those fate or happenstance moments, I turned the corner and entered La Mama, the legendary experimental-theater landmark in the East Village, where, no kidding, I practically bumped into another peace sign.
What a day to be going to the golden anniversary reunion of “Hair,” the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” that shook the culture and more than a few lives by singing of peace, love, freedom, happiness. And by getting naked in theaters around a remarkable chunk of the Western world.
To be accurate, this loose and loving celebration, part of the theater’s Coffee House Chronicles, marked the beginning of the 50th year of an edgy, important, achingly timely piece about issues — war, racism, women’s rights, the environment, homophobia — that still feel raw today. So they’re cheating a little. The anti-Vietnam musical didn’t open on Broadway until April 1968; the original had its premiere in October 1967, as the first production of Joe Papp’s Public Theater.
“We were the theatrical reporters just after the Summer of Love in 1967,” joked James Rado, our casual, wonderfully informative host with a handkerchief around his head and a map-of-the-Americas T-shirt on his chest. “We were the Fall of Love.”
Rado, of course, created the breakthrough show with Gerome Ragni, who died of cancer at 55 in 1991. Jim and Gerry — this was a family kind of afternoon — met in 1964 as downtown actors in a one-night flop called “Hang Down Your Head and Die.” “It was about capital punishment,” said Rado, who played Claude to Ragni’s Berger on Broadway and beyond.
They got the idea to “write a play about hippies.” The writing took three years, then he claims they cast it “just looking for people who looked right.”
And at La Mama were a lot of them — some from the original, others from the Chicago and Los Angeles casts sitting on folding chairs in two semicircles in the friendly, gritty theater with the excellent pianist and band. Serving as a piano shawl was the show’s original American flag. There was Melba Moore (the original Dionne), Annie Golden (Mother in the 1977 revival, Jeannie in the 1979 Milos Forman movie), André De Shields (Hud in the Chicago company), Dale Soules (the original Jeannie) and many other fellow tribe members. (They kept correcting anyone who called them members of a company. “Tribe,” they would hiss.)
Ben Vereen (Hud in L.A., then on Broadway) dropped in for a while, comparing notes with De Shields about how they learned to become “black hippies.” Vereen remembered a time when “we got to go to Sardi’s barefoot,” but, more important, reminded us that “Hair” was “the first to bring diversity to the stage.”
Indeed, almost half a century before the smash of “Hamilton,” this show had 14 companies running at the same time. And it’s not a competition, mind you, but both “Rent” and “Hamilton,” Broadway’s other two milestone rock musicals, have traditional, identifiable musical structures.
As we discovered at the 2009 Tony-winning revival, “Hair” had an unconventional form that still feels new. There was no model, nothing that came before it. At the anniversary bash, we rediscovered how dangerous the raucous anthems to interracial sex — “Black Boys” and “White Boys” — still seem. According to Rado, these were the first two songs they wrote.
Rado told irresistible anecdotes about how the creators found Shelley Plimpton (the original waif Crissy) behind a cash register at a Village coffee house, how he picked out Diane Keaton (Tribe member) from the final auditions because of a twinkle in her eye, which might have been an actorly tear. And if Rado hadn’t found someone’s wallet in a taxi and if that someone hadn’t been a member of The 5th Dimension, the band would never have seen the show, recorded “Aquarius” and made the score a pop hit.
Finally, there were the deceptively simple songs — each a tiny play — that asked, urgently, “Where do I go”? Or made an angry joke out of pollution in the air, or cried in anguish about innocents being “ripped open by a metal explosion.” Or the one that, in the guise of trippy joy, demanded to know “How dare they try to end this beauty?”
It’s always a little scary to anticipate seeing people who broke into our consciousness as symbols of youth. Sure, composer Galt MacDermot is using a walker and Allan Nicholls, who had played both Berger and Claude, looks a little like Bernie Sanders. But there wasn’t a whiff of old-timers’ mustiness in the memories and the performances, the passion, the fun and, oh yes, still the rage.