In January 1968, the Off-Broadway production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Music closed after a run of forty-five performances at the Cheetah Discotheque on 53rd. Between closing Off-Broadway and opening on Broadway in April 1968, the script was revamped for a Broadway audience. The audience of the show was shifting from an artistically-enthused, somewhat bohemian audience, to a more culturally-motivated upper-class group of socialites. It was noted in reviews that touring tickets alone at smaller venues could cost up to the equivalent of ten dollars in 2013.
As a result, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the co-authors of Hair, added new songs, a new director, a new choreographer, and multiple revisions to the script to make the show more palatable for mainstream sensitivity. In 1979, Milos Forman decided to direct a film adaptation of Hair that took the re-appropriation of the script to a whole new level. Forman’s “creative license” was so heinous that the original co-authors consider the film a complete failure.
They are quoted as having said, “Any resemblance between the 1979 film and the original Biltmore version, other than some of the songs, the names of the characters, and a common title, eludes us.” Though it maintained commercial success, the reason that the film adaptation of Hair is such a flop is because it further betrays the ideals of the original production in the interests of appealing to a larger audience.
For our in-class presentation, my group reviewed why Hair should not be considered a social action play. Rado and Ragni wrote Hair at a time of great social upheaval, at the crossroads of many different social revolutions.
In the 1960s, gender equality, racial equality, gay rights, and war protests were all on the rise. Yet Hair, though often misconstrued as such, was not a play written for the purpose to inspire revolution. We compared Hair to its predecessor, Viet Rock, which was in fact a play written for social action purposes by Megan Terry and The Open Theatre.
Viet Rock was much more protest driven, while Hair really took from the teachings of Timothy Leary, who preached psychic revolution with his catch-phrase of “turn on, tune in, and drop out”. We discussed where Ragni and Rado broached the topic of social revolution, in the characters of Claude and Sheila, as well as the funerary ending. Hair as an Off-Broadway show spread a message of self-reflection, not protest, and as the production evolved, this distincbecame more and more pronounced.
In the three months before their Broadway opening, the producers convinced Rado and Ragni to hire a new choreographer named Julie Arenal. The idea behind the personnel change was to both work new creativity into the rehearsal process, but also to solidify less improvised choreography onstage for the Broadway performance. Though the Broadway performance was a really revolutionary development in how Broadway musicals are produced, it was also a step- down from the innovation of the original Off-Broadway production in terms of improvisation. Along with the addition of Julie Arenal, Rado and Ragni added thirteen songs to make the piece more palatable for a Broadway audience, including “Let The Sun Shine In” and “I Believe In Love”.
Rado and Ragni added these songs to downplay the seriousness and somber feel that sometimes came through in the production. “Let The Sun Shine In” was added in particular to make the ending less gloomy and more of a traditional Broadway happy ending.3 The ending, which involves Claude dying a figurative death to symbolize him sacrificing his individuality, is the one true moment of social protest in this play. By sugar coating this moment to placate the masses, Rado and Ragni finally did away with the last bit of social movement in the play, making it near entirely an escapist romp. But the movie goes even further, turning a poignant message into triviality.
In the original script, we meet the Tribe introduced by their charismatic yet thoughtful leader, Claude Hooper Bukowski, the self-proclaimed “most beautiful beast in the forest” (Hair, 393). His hair is so long and luscious that his ‘do is the topic of the titular song “Hair”. Claude’s role in the play can be compared to Hamlet’s in Hamlet: he thoughtfully reflects on the issues of his life before us, debating what is right or wrong.* Claude’s solo song towards the end, “Where Do I Go?”, is a perfect analog for Hamlet’s famed “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy. The line “where is the someone/That tells me why/I live and die?” mirrors Hamlet’s struggle with the morality of his own mortality (Hair, 442).
In the movie, on the other hand, we are introduced to a very different Claude: a short-haired farm boy draftee from Oklahoma who is mystified but also enchanted by the way of the hippie. Instead of thoughtfully struggling with the arguments of the hippies, the Tribe seems to get Claude high and then push and puppet him through a series of situations for most of the film. The filmmakers appear to have made Claude a non-hippie in an attempt to make him more relatable to a more modern audience, but what they’ve done is turn hippies in the movie into a spectacle, more a dated oddity than a cast of serious characters.
The characters of Hud and Berger and Woof are parade by as point-and-look phenomena with Twyla Tharp dance moves rather than forward thinking youths. About half an hour into the movie, the screenwriter throws the Tribe into Sheila’s stuffy wedding, where they can do a bunch of zany things for the kicks and giggles of the audience, rather than deal with the issues brought up in the play. Like Claude, the character of Sheila Franklin is really shaken up in the film. The original Sheila is an NYU student “living in the East Village,” which at the time was a breeding ground for beatniks and hippies (Hair, 424). She seems to be the symbol of social protest in the group, as the song “Sheila Franklin” says: “She loves protest in the park/Like he said, she’s Joan of Arc” (Hair, 425).
The Tribe, which is much more focused on psychic revolution than any form of social change, mocks her with nicknames like “Ms. Poster” and “college girl”, demeaning her for her womanhood and her ideals. Berger and Claude turn her into a sexual object, at one point pretend raping her onstage as if it’s a big joke. But if Sheila is a weak and demeaned character in the musical, in the film she’s virtually a plot device. She helps move the Tribe from one point to another, and that’s about it. She’s a socialite from a very well-to-do neighborhood who we first meet riding horses through a nice park, not creating posters. The only time she ever shows any semblance of real personality is when she’s seducing the officer at the bar, but even then, her personality is simply her sexuality.
The rearrangement of the songs within the film also reveals a lot about the intentions of the filmmakers. In the original production, the song “I Got Life” is Claude’s plea with his mother to understand how his lifestyle works and to sympathize with his views. Instead, it becomes a goofy, nonsensical tirade that Berger sings as a background track to him irreverently kicking dinner items off of a table at the wedding. “Hair” is not sung as a statement of individuality and freedom; rather, Berger and Woof sing it as a novelty gag.
In fact, so much of the original plot is reordered, shuffled, or erased that it is in fact Berger, not Claude, who dies at the end of the film. Instead of making the audience feel uncomfortable by killing off the relatable audience surrogate, the filmmakers kill off the cartoonish hippie with whom we never had time to develop a relationship.
Since its inception, the play Hair has been an ever-changing production editing itself for its audience as necessary. As the show’s audience expanded, the focus of the message became blurrier. The final step of the dilution of the film’s message was the film adaptation. Milos Forman, eager to make money off of nostalgia and gimmick factor, created a film that denies the original intent of the play. Forgotten is the psychic struggle of Claude and the protesting ways of Sheila, replaced by two personality-lacking young people bemused by the funny ways of the hippies. Lost in these changes is Hair’s raison d’etre, the underlying reason that the play was written, and hopefully, someday, when someone realizes that, maybe a film version will be made that James Rado and Gerome Ragni can be proud to call their own.