Hair co-creator Gerome Ragni could be seen hanging out in downtown hotspots such as the Chelsea Hotel to La MaMa, soaking up ideas that eventually made it into the Broadway version of that show.
“Everything was one, the music and theater and art,” Ann Harris recalled. “Everybody was interested in everybody then, and it was beautiful.” When Ann was in her mid-40s, she appeared in the 1970 cult film The Honeymoon Killers with actress Shirley Stoler, and Harry Koutoukas also cast her in one of his eccentric “camps.” She could occasionally be found running around with Koutoukas and Hair creators Jim Rado and Gerome Ragni, having a blast on the streets of downtown New York. “I think the Catholic Church was Mom’s anchor into a magical idea of life,” Walter Michael Harris said. “She had pretty strong, stringent Irish-Catholic roots in her childhood, and I think part of her fantasy life was really among the angels and with heaven—the idea of that sort of magical place.” After the family moved to New York, they stopped going to church and entered Off-Off-Broadway’s dingy temples. “Cino became the church,” he continued. “La MaMa took the place of that in our lives.” The Harris family matriarch finally entered a new act of her life after finding herself among a like-minded tribe of experimental playwrights, directors, and actors. From her headquarters on East Ninth Street in the East Village, Ann began writing more songs and collaborating with her husband, children, and newfound extended family. “It must have been a relief for Mom after what must have seemed like a long exile in a desert—the years in Florida. For Mom, I think it was just really quite liberating.”
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Though it savvily repackaged the counterculture, making it safe for the masses, Tom O’Horgan’s staging retained a subversive spark. “Hair was an antiwar play,” Walter Michael Harris emphasized. “It wasn’t ‘happy hippies doing their trippy thing,’ which is what a lot of people think about when they think about Hair today. In Tom’s hands, it was really quite focused on opposition to the war in Vietnam—which was a big, big reason why it was written to begin with. I know Jim and Gerry were really fascinated with youth culture at the time, and what the young people were doing and saying and thinking, and what their hopes and dreams were.” The final number, “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),” could easily be reduced to a hippie cliché, but it was a sober reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War when the death of Hair’s main character, Claude, was revealed on the Biltmore Theatre’s stage. “Nobody was smiling, nobody was waving the peace sign, nobody had flowers, it was very serious stuff,” Harris recalled. “What the audience saw was Claude laid out on a funeral bier, on top of the American flag, dead.” It was a shocker, a belly punch to the audience—who were left in darkness for a minute before the curtain call, contemplating what they had just seen.
From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Sixteen-year-old Walter Michael Harris was the youngest cast member in the Broadway version, though he hadn’t appeared in the previous Off-Broadway productions. He had seen the show when it played at the midtown disco the Cheetah—a transitional production that split the difference between its more stilted debut at the Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and the explosive Broadway version. Hair was constantly evolving in the lead‑up to its Broadway debut. Show creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni continued working on the script and songs at the same time Tom O’Horgan held auditions, which is how Harris got involved. When he accompanied a friend on piano during Hair’s open auditions, O’Horgan asked him if he wanted to try out. “Well, if you’re involved, Tom, then yes!” Harris had previously worked with the director as both an actor and musician in Foster’s Madonna in the Orchard, and also participated in a Happening that O’Horgan orchestrated at Judson Church. The Hair cast rehearsed at the Ukrainian Hall, one of the many old ballrooms located on Second Avenue. “Tom was kind, very self-effacing, not at all dictatorial as a director,” Harris recalled. “He could get tough when he needed to, but that was very rare. He was just a very soft-spoken conductor.” The word conductor was appropriate, for O’Horgan visualized scenes in musical terms—much like a flow of a symphony or a jazz composition. “I always said Tom directed the cast like they were an orchestra of flesh,” recalled Patrick. “His work was much more akin to dance and music than to what had been thought of as theater before.”
Wendy Clarke felt that the Chelsea was a great place for her mother, Shirley Clarke, because it connected her to other like-minded souls. “It was the perfect lifestyle for her,” she said. “The lobby was like your living room, so you can sit in the lobby for hours and just have conversations with the most amazing people—Jonas Mekas, Divine, the guys who did Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni.” Just off the lobby was El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant and bar that served inexpensive lobster and was a popular hangout. Smith wandered in one night and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore