Fifty years ago next month, the musical ‘Hair’ opened to a small audience on an off-Broadway stage at Joseph Papp’s newly-founded Public Theater. It was director Gerald Freedman’s first day back on the job after resigning during rehearsals 10 days prior, and the assistant director wasn’t even sure the theater would be ready in time. But the show did go on, critics saw a diamond in the rough, and widespread acclaim to come would pave its path to Broadway in April 1968.
The musical is now heralded as the quintessential representation of the hippie zeitgeist of late-’60s America. Its rock music score led to a Billboard No. 1 soundtrack and five top-five hits – all by different artists, including Newport’s first family of music, the Cowsills, who covered the title song.
‘Hair’ was the brainchild of James Rado and the late Gerome Ragni, who developed a script centered around the draft after observing the reactions of the hippie counterculture along their Greenwich Village streets. Both were already accomplished actors, but Rado’s heart was set on writing.
“We wanted to do something super-spectacular that brought the excitement we were experiencing in the streets onto the stage,” Rado, 85, said in an interview.
Before they could do that, however, their script needed music. Rado and Ragni wanted a rock score to punctuate their dark anti-war theme. They found their composer in Grammy Award-winning recording artist Galt MacDermot, who gave the score playfulness and lilt, counterbalancing the hippies’ societal contempt voiced in lyrics like “cause I look different you think I’m subversive.”
MacDermot took an immediate liking to the writers.
“They were funny and the script was funny, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it,’” recalled MacDermot, 88.
“That so-called darkness was part of the humor,” he explained. “[Rado and Ragni] knew what they were doing. You try to write a song that somebody will be happy to sing, so you keep both sides going.”
The plot, or book, focused on the internal conflict of Claude Hooper Bukowski, who had just been drafted and was searching for direction on whether to fight — as his parents insisted he do — or dodge the draft, as his friend Berger was unabashedly planning to do. During Freedman’s brief absence, his replacement recast the lead and Rado played the part, a role he held for only the first preview until Freedman returned.
With instant classics like “Aquarius,” “Easy To Be Hard,” and “Good Morning Starshine,” the catchy score proved an effective vessel for carrying the anti-war movement to the masses, but it was the title cut that caught television comedian Carl Reiner’s ear. Reiner was to host an NBC variety show called “The Wonderful World of Pizzazz,” which took a comical and musical look at fashion trends, and the idea of The Cowsills singing about long, beautiful hair was too irresistible to pass up.
“Carl thought it would be a hoot if we, the clean-cut all-American family band, would put on wigs and make ‘Hair’ a song,” said Paul Cowsill, 65, who recently returned back to his Oregon home from his third summer on The Turtles’ Happy Together Tour with older brother Bob and younger sister Susan.
The Cowsills made a few adjustments to Rado’s lyrics but kept MacDermot’s melody and set about recording their arrangement. Each member sung a stanza, which was to be accompanied by a close-up of that particular vocalist during the television broadcast, with 9-year-old Susan bouncing around and famously adding in her “and spaghettied” line. When the mix was cut to acetate, the Cowsills thought they had something big but not everyone in their camp agreed.
“We loved the heck out of it,” Paul Cowsill said. “We went to MGM, and they just said, ‘No freakin’ way. That will ruin your careers.’”
But the Cowsills pressed on, bringing the acetate with them to a studio interview at WLS in Chicago, where it went viral. Within two months, the single hit No. 2 on Billboard and No. 1 on both Cash Box and Canada’s RPM charts, making it the biggest song on the continent that spring. Nowadays on the Happy Together Tour, “Hair” is a staple for the three Cowsill siblings every night.
“People will ask, ‘Man, how do you get up for doing that song over and over again?’” Paul Cowsill said. “I tell them I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thanking God that that song is a part of my life, because it’s enabling me to continue a career that not many people get to have in their 60s.”
He added: “I couldn’t be more grateful for ‘Hair’ and I will sing that song every day until I die if somebody wants to hear it.”
And for the past 50 years, somebody always has.