Hair’s Broadway Debut

Hair’s Broadway Debut

The night before the Broadway opening of Hair at the Biltmore Theatre, Walter Michael Harris and three other cast members snuck into the theater to conduct a kind of holy ritual. Knowing the theater well, they hid in different locations to evade the security guards, who locked the theater and left for the evening. “Basically,” Harris said, “the idea was to purify the space with our presence, with our chants, so that it would be ready for the opening night. We also probably took LSD, or mescaline, or something like that.” Who knows how effective this ritual was, but the show was an aesthetic and commercial success. “Yet with the sweet and subtle lyrics of Gerome Ragni and James Rado,” New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes wrote, “the show is the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday. It even looks different. Robin Wagner’s beautiful junk-art setting (a blank stage replete with broken-down truck, papier-mâché Santa Claus, juke box, neon signs) is as masterly as Nancy Potts’s cleverly tattered and colorful, turned-on costumes.” Barnes’s rave review ensured that the show sold out for months, turning Hair into a massive pop culture hit, complete with a best-selling soundtrack and international tours. Musicals had long been a prominent part of twentieth-century popular culture and had spawned many a hit record, but Hair was truly the first modern musical. It established the template for the Broadway blockbuster and was an obvious precursor to contemporary shows such as Rent and Hamilton.

From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


Biltmore Theatre
261 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036