When the Sun Shone In: Remembering Hair at 50 – Vanity Fair
One day in early 1965—in the midst of growing protests against Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, the height of the civil-rights battles in the South, and just as New York’s Beat culture was giving way to a new form of hipness that would soon lure suburban kids to East Village crash pads—two ambitious young musical-theater actor-writers of similar backgrounds, but opposite temperaments, took a stroll to the Whitney Museum.
James Rado had served in the Navy and done graduate work at Catholic University, but his heart was in theater. He had produced two college musicals and was now writing pop songs and studying with Lee Strasberg. He was a short-haired, fairly reserved single man with secret yearnings for a freedom that didn’t have a name. His friend Gerome “Jerry” Ragni, a far wilder spirit, had been 1 of 10 children in a poor Italian-American family. He, too, had attended Catholic University; he, too, was short-haired. He had recently married, but that conventional act didn’t express the sum of his sexuality; his work with the off-Off-Broadway Open Theater better reflected his soul. Friends—and, soon, secretly lovers—Rado and Ragni had met during the run of a play they were performing in together, and they were trying to craft a musical that included songs they’d sung in beatnik coffee houses.
Rado, now 85, recently recalled that trip to the Whitney on a phone call from his home in New Jersey. Walking the museum’s galleries, the pair came across a painting by the artist Jim Dine that portrayed a comb and a clump of hair. It was titled, simply, Hair.
“I called it to Jerry’s attention, and we were both knocked out,” Rado said. That ironic painting; that bland, generic, all-encompassing word: somehow it ended up fitting perfectly as the title of the new play they were co-writing. Looking back, “what was really underlying the whole thing,” Rado said, in an admission he’s only started making recently, “was the new way men were relating to each other.” Both he and Ragni were seeing it on the East Village streets: a physicality that lacked self-consciousness. “They were very openly embracing each other as brothers,” Rado said. “It wasn’t gay; it wasn’t repressed.”
Inspired, the pair got to work, dreaming up two male best friends: “Claude, who was gentle, poetic, and very loving, and Berger, who was the noisy liberator.” In personality and in their plans for the play, Rado said, “I was Claude, and Jerry, who was very brash and humorous, was a perfect fit for Berger.” That’s how they wrote them and that’s how they would portray them on stage. They added in a girl as well: Sheila, an N.Y.U. anti-war activist who toggles between brusque Berger and sweet Claude. There was a vague, open-ended sexuality among the three.