James Rado, co-creator of the groundbreaking hippie musical ‘Hair’, which celebrated protest, weed and free love and paved the way for the sound of rock on Broadway, has passed away. He was 90.
Rado died Tuesday night in New York City from cardio respiratory arrest, friend and publicist Merle Frimark said.
“Hair,” with story and lyrics by Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, was the first Broadway rock musical, the first Broadway show to feature full nudity, and the first to feature a same-sex kiss.
Tributes have poured in from the theater world, including André De Shields, who tweeted “Rest in power, James Rado” to playwright Michael R. Jackson, whose “A Strange Loop” just won the Tony Award for Best New Musical. He tweeted ‘rest in peace’.
“Hair” enabled other rock musicals such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Rent”. Like “Hamilton,” it was one of the few Broadway shows in recent decades to find its songs on the charts.
The so-called “American tribal love-rock musical” had its world premiere at the Public Theater in New York City’s East Village in 1967 and was transferred to Broadway the following year, where the musical ran for more than 1,800 performances. Rado played Claude, a young man about to be drafted and sent to the Vietnam War.
The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes called the show “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.” The New York Post said it had “unintentional charm”, infectious cheerfulness and a “young zest for life” that “make it hard to resist.” However, Variety called it “crazy”.
It lost the Tony in 1969 to the more traditional “1776” but won a Grammy Award. The show was revived on Broadway in 1977 and again in 2009, when it won Best Revival Tony. It was made into a film in 1979 by Milos Forman, starring Treat Williams and Beverly D’Angelo.
The “Hair” Broadway cast album spawned four top four singles on the US pop charts, including the Fifth Dimension’s No. 1 hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and best pop vocal performance by a group in 1970. Others included “Hair” by the Cowsills, “Good Morning, Starshine” by singer Oliver and “Easy to Be Hard” by Three Dog Night. The cast album itself stayed at number 1 on the Billboard 200 for 13 weeks
“Hair” tells the story of Claude and Berger, best buddies who find freedom in the late 1960s. Between index cards, love affairs, bad LSD trips and a parade of protest marches, the two wander through a New York full of flower children, drugged hippies and furious tourists who don’t approve of the wild happening. In one song, Claude sings poignantly: “Why do I live, why do I die, tell me where to go, tell me why.”
Will Swenson, who played Berger in “Hair” in the 2009 revival, called Rado on Twitter a “crazy, awesome psychedelic visionary” and said his show “changed my life. The tribe is forever.”
The show is playful and chaotic, but there is also a sense of outrage in the protests against war, racism, sexism, pollution and the general hypocrisy of an era dominated by American involvement in Vietnam.
“I’d still like ‘Hair’ to be about what it was about then,” Rado told The Associated Press in 1993. “‘Hair’ had a spiritual message and it has a mystical message that hopefully gets through – there is more life than the way it was conceived for us, explained to us, taught to us.”
The songs of “Hair” have been used in everything from the movies “Forrest Gump”, “Minions” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to TV shows like “Glee”, “So You Think You Can Dance” and “My name is Earl.” Billboard magazine lists “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” at No. 66 of the top 100 songs of all time.
Some of the stars who had roles in “Hair” include Diane Keaton, Joe Mantegna, Meat Loaf, Keith Carradine, Donna Summer, Tim Curry, Elaine Paige and David Patrick Kelly and Charlayne Woodard.
At one point, 14 companies around the world were operating simultaneously, including a London production that made nearly 2,000 performances.
In 2019, the original 1968 Broadway cast recording was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden deemed these aural treasures worthy of preservation for their cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance to the nation’s recorded sound heritage.
Rado was born in Venice, California, and grew up in Rochester, New York, and Washington, DC. After serving in the US Navy for two years, he moved to New York and studied acting with Paula and Lee Strasberg.
Rado was part of the ensemble on the Broadway play “Marathon ’33” in 1963 and played Richard the Lionheart in “The Lion in Winter” in 1966 opposite Christopher Walken. He met Ragni when he was cast in the off-Broadway musical ‘Hang Down Your Head and Die’.
The two were interested in a new kind of show and focused on the hippie scene. They wrote the script while sharing an apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rado is the origin of the “Hair” role of conscript Claude on Broadway.
“Her” encountered resistance across the country. In addition to using four-letter words, ignoring authority, sexual references and crude humor, the ending of Act 1 had the entire cast striptease to “Where Do I Go” and there was what many believed was desecration of the American flag.
There were church posts in Evansville, Indiana. City officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, declined a request to stage the show, determining that it would not be “in the best interest of the community.” In Denver, police threatened to arrest anyone who appeared onstage naked. A visit to Boston was challenged in court on desecration of the flag.
The original Public Theater production had the nude scene removed, but the creators wanted it back for the Broadway debut. Under then-state law, New York City allowed onstage nudity as long as the actors didn’t move, so the entire cast of “Hair” lined up, naked and dead still.
After ‘Hair’, Rado co-wrote the music and lyrics for the off-Broadway show ‘Rainbow’ with his brother Ted Rado. Later he teamed up with Ragni to create the book and lyrics for the show ‘Sun’. Ragni passed away in 1991. Rado co-wrote a new show with his brother called “American Soldier”.
In 2009, Rado, MacDermot and Ragni were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., of the group The Fifth Dimension, were joined by the Broadway cast at the time for a finale that propped up the approximately 1,000 guests at the ceremony. MacDermot died in 2018.
Rado told the Hudson Reporter in 2009 that none of the show’s creators expected it to have such a huge impact. “We thought we had stumbled upon a great idea, and something that could potentially become a hit on Broadway, without thinking about the distant future.”
He leaves behind his brother Ted Rado, sister-in-law Kay Rado, nieces Melanie Khoury, Emily DiBona and Melissa Stuart, nieces and a second cousin.