Hair: The musical that ‘changed theatre forever’

On 27 September 1968, with the opening of Hair, the curtain fell on centuries of theatre censorship.

Photo: 27 September 2018 | Sarah Lee | BBC News

On 27 September 1968 the curtain fell on centuries of theatre censorship. Hours later, a cast of long-haired young actors took to the stage in a show depicting drug-taking, anti-war protests and shocking nudity. London’s West End was never the same again.

Hair was a musical that placed the 1960s counterculture on stage. It thrust bisexuality, interracial relationships and the rejection of monogamy in front of audiences who had previously been “protected” from such taboo subjects.

In a theatre first, one scene featured the cast appearing from behind a sheet, fully naked and chanting the words “beads, flowers, freedom, and happiness”.

Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is a rock musical with a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot.

The work reflects the creators’ observations of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the late 1960s, and several of its songs became anthems of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement.

Despite lasting just seconds, it was considered scandalous and resulted in many audience members walking out of the Shaftesbury Theatre, dinner jackets in hand.

Prior to the autumn of 1968, any reference to homosexuality, bisexuality and nude performances would have been considered too outrageous to be shown on a British stage.

Even something as seemingly harmless as a reference to Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, in John Osborne’s play Personal Enemy, was banned because it was seen as a codified reference to homosexuality.

Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Diane Keaton_HR
Diane Keaton

But as the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of censorship – which dated back to 1737 – came to an end, the cast of Hair began preparing for its opening night.

The risqué show, written by out-of-work actors Gerome Ragni and James Rado, had already proven a hit in New York the year before.

A young David Bowie auditioned for a part – four times in total – but was never invited to join the London cast (he later attended a performance but reportedly came away “unimpressed”).

Although the opening was planned for 29 July, Hair actually opened on 27 September after waiting for the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship rules to be revoked. The middle poster was issued for the first production on 27 September, and the third advertised the musical’s fourth year at Shaftesbury Theatre

The musical told the story of the “tribe”, a group of politically active hippies living a bohemian existence in New York City.

Its main protagonist Claude, played by 23-year-old Paul Nicholas, lived a life characterised by the pursuit of love, peace and sexual revolution – but faced a battle with his family who wanted him to fight in Vietnam.

The hippies’ long hair – and the title of the show – was a symbol of their defiance.

“You would have had to have your hair cut when going into the military and therefore the name Hair is highly symbolic,” says Geoffrey Marsh, director of the V&A’s Department of Theatre and Performance.

Nicholas, who along with Elaine Page and Oliver Tobias subsequently became a household name, still remembers the outrage the nude scene provoked.


“Fifty years ago there was no nudity in commercial theatre – so it was a big change,” he said.

“But looking back, the ‘shocking’ nude scene which was widely spoke about wasn’t even that bad – it was nicely done. It wasn’t salacious or anything like that.

“But some people walked out of the theatre, you know, in disgust.”

Hair_Production_Photo_1967_James Rado_Gerome Ragni_HR
James Rado and Gerome RagniBert Andrews

Annabel Leventon played Sheila in the original cast on the London stage.

“On the first night, and it never happened anywhere else in the world – as far as I know – the cast of Hair went out into the auditorium,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

“We danced in the aisles, sat on the audiences’ laps, frightened them, and at the very end of the show we all ran out singing Let the Sun Shine In and went back on stage and the whole audience followed us [back on stage].

“That’s when we realised the show made a greater change in Britain than anywhere else.

“Hair really shocked and changed the world of theatre forever.”

Hair continued to strike a chord with audiences for the next five years.

This was despite opening to decidedly mixed reviews. WA Darlington, of the Daily Telegraph, had insisted he “tried hard” but found the evening “a complete bore”.


However, the predominantly middle-aged white male critics were not the show’s intended audience and it went on to run for 1,997 performances until 1973.

Simon Sladen, of the V&A Museum, said the show soon had an impact on the rest of the West End.

Once censorship was revoked, some playwrights and producers would “binge” on things that had previously been forbidden.

The youth movement could finally come alive in the theatre – full of energy and vitality,” he said.

“Hair was like a festival on the stage – an anarchic explosion of all things anti-establishment.”

Nicholas, who met his future wife Linzi while working on the show, agrees.

“Everyone wanted to do a nude scene, or have the cast swear on stage,” he said.

“It’s as if they were getting it out of their system because we’d been suppressed for so long.”

Original Cast

Look Back at the Original Broadway Production of Hair


APRIL 29, 2020The show opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre April 29, 1968.

After a six-week limited run at the Public Theater in 1967, Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre April 29, 1968.

The musical, directed by Tom O’Horgan with dance direction by Julie Arenal, played 17 previews and 1,750 performances before closing July 2, 1972, earning Tony Award nominations for Best Direction and Best Musical.

With music by Galt MacDermot and book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rando, Hair examines a group of 60s-era youth struggling for generational and personal identity, dealing with the Vietnam War, and exploring drugs and the sexual revolution.


 Look Back…31 PHOTOS
CastFriedman-Abeles/©NYPL for the Performing Arts
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Emmaretta Marks_Melba Moore_Lorri Davis_HR
Emmaretta Marks, Melba Moore, and Lorri Davis
Hair_Broadway_Production_Photo_1968_Barry McGuire_Diane Keaton_Steve Curry_HR
Barry McGuire, Diane Keaton, and Steve Curry
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Sally Eaton_HR
Sally Eaton
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Ronald Donnie Burks_Lorrie Davis_Jim-Fields_Natalie Mosco_HR
Ronald Donnie Burks, Lorrie- Davis, Jim Fields, and Natalie Mosco
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Shelley Plimpton_HR
Shelley Plimpton
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Shelley Plimpton_Steve Gamet_Leata-Galloway_Donnie Burks_HR
Shelley Plimpton, Steve Gamet, Leata Galloway, and Donnie Burks
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Joe Morton_Natalie Mosco_Ronald Dyson_Donnie Burks_HR
Joe Morton, Natalie Mosco, Ronald Dyson, and Donnie Burks
Cast of Hair
Hair_Production_Photo_1967_Lorri Davis_Natalie Musco_Paul Jabara_Ronald Dyson_Donnie Burks_Lamont Washington_HR
Lorri Davis, Natalie Musco, Paul Jabara, Ronald Dyson, Donnie Burks, and Lamont Washington


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.