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Looking Back at How ‘Hair’ Shocked, Changed Broadway 50 Years Ago

Shortly before “Hair” opened at Broadway’s Biltmore Theater on April 29, 1968 — 50 years ago this month — Variety reported, “The musical is vehemently anti-establishment and pro-dissenting youth.” Before then, most plays, films and TV shows had avoided antiwar protests and the sexual revolution, or mentioned those topics as a way of reasserting middle-class values. Variety reported another radical aspect: The show “includes a scene of total nudity, with several men and femmes facing downstage.” Police raids and arrests were common with nude shows, though “New York City authorities have adopted a hands-off policy re sexually extreme legit fare,” Variety said. While “Hair” was safe in Gotham, it was vulnerable in other cities: In Mexico, the show was shut down after one performance and the cast album was banned in some countries.

The “American tribal love-rock musical,” as it was billed, was originally produced off-Broadway by the New York Shakespeare Festival, then moved to the Cheetah, a Broadway discotheque, for a limited run. The Broadway edition was extensively revamped by the authors Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot and proved to be an enduring hit.

From early previews, the Broadway edition played to near-capacity audiences — top ticket was $8.75 on weeknights, $11 on weekends — and ran for more than 1,000 performances. Melba Moore and Diane Keaton were in the original cast and replacements included Ben Vereen, Keith Carradine and Meat Loaf; actors in other productions worldwide included Tim Curry, Donna Summer, Elaine Paige and Sonia Braga.

“Hair” was one of the last Broadway musicals to spawn top-10 hits, including “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine.” The era of singer-songwriters was taking over, so cover versions of songs became rarer, though some Broadway cast albums continue to be big-sellers, like “Wicked” and “Hamilton.”

Milos Forman directed the 1979 film version of “Hair,” and the musical enjoyed a successful 2009 Broadway revival. It has also been frequently performed in professional and amateur productions. The show that was once radical has become an accepted piece of Americana.

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