Forty-five years ago this month, I attended a revolutionary musical production in Madison, Wis.
Okay, “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” had been revolutionary at it’s debut two and a half years earlier. But, hey, we here in Flyover Country need some time to catch up, or so we’re told. Anyway, the first rock musical already had had an impact on The Music, in the Midwest as well as nation- and worldwide.
I actually saw the touring company production twice, on consecutive nights, but not because I liked it that much the first time. I had already asked the current object of my affections to go with me, when a former flame offered me a Dutch treat date the night before that assignation. What was I to do — I couldn’t turn down a freebie, or hurt her feelings, could, I?
For my younger readers and those who slept through the late 1960s, “Hair” tells the story of a group of hippies living in New York City, campaigning against the Vietnam War and the draft, and for the sexual revolution and an alternative lifestyle. The musical debuted off-Broadway in the fall of 1967, a few months after the “Summer of Love” and a few months before the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war.
(The second venue where the musical was staged was the Cheetah nightclub in New York City. That’s the same discotheque that I had gone to six months earlier, while in the Big Apple on a church youth trip. No, it wasn’t part of the regular itinerary — we were allowed a night or two on our own,)
The 30-plus songs in the score — it is called the first conceptual musical ever — relate the experiences of members of “the tribe” and their friends. The overwhelming majority of those songs didn’t make it beyond the stage, except to those who bought the several soundtrack albums that were released.
Someone in my social circle at U-Rock in Janesville must have owned one of those albums, because it was played at our get-togethers in 1969, and we sang many of the songs. But plenty of other Americans were hearing a few of the songs, because four of them became charting hits when recorded by non-cast members — in some cases, those acts’ biggest hits.
The 5th Dimension and the Cowsills got there first, in March 1969, releasing, respectively, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in” and the musical’s theme song. The former medley was Marilyn McCoo et al’s first No. 1 hit, and spent six weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100.
The Cowsills’ “Hair” was their second No. 2 Billboard hit — “The Rain the Park and Other Things” was the first — but also was No. 1 on the Cash Box chart. The family group landed just eight singles in the Hot 100, only four of those in the Top 40.
Oliver released “Good Morning Starshine” in July of that year, and it was his first charting single, and one of only four. It reached No. 3, but the North Carolina native — real name, William Oliver Swofford — had more success with its follow-up, “Jean,” a No. 2.
Last but not least — in terms of chart success, if not creativity, since they did covers almost exclusively — was Three Dog Night. The Los Angeles band released “Easy to Be Hard” in August 1969; its third and highest-charting single at that point, it reached No. 4. TDN, though, would record 21 Top 40 singles, penned by songwriters as diverse as Hoyt Axton, Laura Nyro and Paul Williams.
By the time I saw the show in early 1971, that wave had passed, and reality had overtaken the artistry. Woodstock happened in August 1969, when the last of those hits was hot; less than four months later, the murder of a fan attending a Rolling Stones’ free concert in Altamont, Calif., put a serious dent in the “peace, love and good vibes” thing.
The culture hadn’t been won over entirely by that time, or the law. Researching the February 1971 Madison production in the Mad City newspaper microfilms, I found stories about the local government’s attempts to enforce its obscenity ordinance, against the staged nudity contained in “Hair.”
Those legal efforts ran afoul of U.S. Supreme Court decisions setting standards for what is obscene, and the show went on. The production’s cast made use of the legal battle, according to a review of the opening performance, sending an actor in police uniform out to announce the intermission.
The point of that appearance was that it immediately followed the celebrated nudity scene, in which the cast bares it all at the end of the first act. Or maybe not all — I remember at the time, or sometime thereafter, being told that the actors were actually wearing flesh-toned body stockings. In retrospect, because of the stage lighting, and where we were sitting, it was hard to decide if that was true or not.
Reading those old issues of the Madison newspapers, it was clear that the anti-war edge of “Hair” hadn’t yet succeeded. Running above one of the stories about the legal battles over the musical is a photo and story about the planning meeting for a protest against the Vietnam War, which wouldn’t end for another four years, although America’s involvement was lessening at that point.
The February 1970 review of the opening-night show in Madison states that the musical “is slipping out of the Age of Aquarius and into the realm of Establishment theater.” Coming up on 50 years after the musical debuted, it seems rather quaint — there’s stuff a lot more disturbing in the world these days than profanities and nudity.
The impact of “Hair” on The Music? None of the songs really stood on their own, in the way that tunes from some Broadway musicals have permeated pop music; the groups that had hits with bits from the “Hair” score enjoyed success, but didn’t do much of any original work.