×

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.

More Vintage

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Reflecting on the Surprise Success of 'Field of Dreams' 30 Years Later

    With baseball season in full swing, it’s time to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Field of Dreams.” The movie, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, was part of a run of late-’80s baseball films: “Bull Durham” and “Eight Men Out” opened in 1988, and “Major League” and “Field of Dreams” the next year. Universal [...]

  • 'Easy Rider' Stars Brought Civil War

    How 'Easy Rider's' Stars Found a Way Around Cannes' Strict Dress Code 50 Years Ago

    The Cannes Film Festival is famous for many things, including its strict dress code for premieres. But when “Easy Rider” debuted 50 years ago, the stars found a fashion loophole in the rigorous “comme il faut” rules. As Variety reported on May 21, 1969, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda attended in Civil War uniforms. The [...]

  • Dustin Lance Black First Time in

    Dustin Lance Black's Set Design Connections Helped Pave Way to 'Milk' Screenplay

    Dustin Lance Black’s autobiography “Mama’s Boy” (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95) focuses less on his showbiz career and more on his early formative years. As a painfully shy kid, he survived physical abuse, Mormon repression and Texas-style military conservatism, to become the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk” (2008). He has used his fame to campaign for human [...]

  • Nick Hornby

    Nick Hornby on 'Fever Pitch' Adaptations and His New Sundance TV Project

    In 1997, Tony Blair was the U.K. prime minister, and Oasis, Blur, Pulp, the Spice Girls, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, “Trainspotting” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were among the cultural touchstones of what was dubbed “Cool Britannia.” And bestselling writer Nick Hornby was making his first movie, an adaptation of his hit novel “Fever [...]

  • THE EXORCIST

    'Exorcist' Star Max Von Sydow Doesn't Let Age Define His Roles

    Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today. In the 1950s, von Sydow had [...]

  • Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon

    Looking Back at the 'Fosse/Verdon' Dancing Legends That Inspired FX Series

    On April 9, FX debuts “Fosse/Verdon,” about two people who may not be household names, but are certainly in the Pantheon to those who love musicals. In the Jan. 25, 1950, issue, Variety reviewer Hobe Morrison lamented the stage revue “Alive and Kicking,” but gave one of the few positive mentions to newcomer Gwen Verdon. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content