When the musical Hair premiered on Broadway on April 29, 1968, the theater world was shocked, horrified, and delighted. The show introduced the rock musical—and nudity—to the Broadway stage in a story that brought the psychedelic hippie culture to life and engaged in a frank discussion of the political issues and social taboos of the 1960s. Hair forever changed Broadway and has left a legacy that continues to influence many, including Melba Moore, who was a newly minted singer when she was recruited to perform in the original production.
In 1968, I had just left my job teaching music at a little hole-in-the-wall school in north New Jersey to pursue my dream of becoming a singer. I had started to make a living by doing back-up vocals for studio recording sessions, and I was booked by Galt MacDermot, who wrote the music for Hair and was putting together a group to record the cast album ahead of the show’s Broadway premiere.
At the time, I was what I called a “Black American Princess.” I was more conservative and a bit sheltered. The only thing I knew about hippies was what I had seen on TV, and they kind of scared me. MacDermot was joined in the studio by Gerome “Jerry” Ragni and James “Jim” Rado, who had written the book and lyrics for Hair, and who were the show’s two male stars. They were definitely hippies.
When Jerry Ragni walked into the studio, the other back-up vocalists and I were stunned. We thought something was wrong with him, maybe he was on some kind of angel dust or something. To give you an idea of what he looked like, he had bright red, bushy, almost afro, hair that looked like his fingers were stuck in a live plug.
He was way ahead of his time. He had on these faded out, raggedy, full-of-holes jeans like people wear now, and he didn’t have on shoes. They were sweet people, but I just thought they were very strange. They weren’t like anyone I had ever met before.
It was a nice paying session because it was going to take about a week or two, so we decided to stay. The music was different. It wasn’t really R&B, and it wasn’t really rock. When I read those first lyrics, I said, “What the hell is this? What is this mess here?” Listening to the music in the studio without any context, I had no idea what it was supposed to be, what story it was trying to tell.
Towards the end of the session, Jerry came up and asked me if I wanted to be in Hair. I said, “Excuse me, I don’t have a Bachelor of Arts in music to do nobody’s hair. In fact, you’re the one that needs a hair dresser.” It’s a true story! He was very sweet, and he explained that it was going to be a Broadway musical. So that’s how I was cast as Dionne, part of the Tribe, in the original production of Hair.
Even though I knew how crazy the show was going to be from doing the cast recording, I had no hesitations about being in it. I figured I would get the best end of the deal because I didn’t know how to act and they were going to pay me and teach me at the same time.
We rehearsed for about a month or two and, by opening night, we had already had controversy among the cast about the nude scene—whether it should be in the show and which actors wanted to do it. At first, I didn’t participate in it. Then, one night early in the run, I suddenly thought, “Just do it.” I felt daring, and I was more curious and open to exploring a new life than I was concerned about things like what my parents were going to say. I grew up worried about everything, but I realized I wasn’t worried anymore. I decided to drop my clothes that night and every night after.
We were all very different, but I never saw any negative competition in the cast. Behind the scenes, there were a lot of opinions and disagreements, but there was never any anger. We got along beautifully. I think that happened because people really weren’t chosen so much for their talent—although they really were talented—but they were chosen for their astrological signs. Jim and Jerry were very serious about that, and everything in the show was very strongly driven by astrology.
Even after the premiere of Hair—which was nerve-racking because it was my first experience in any kind of theater production, period—I really had no idea what the show was about. I knew how scenes moved from one to the other and I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t know what the show meant. The whole production was a big curiosity to me, a big question mark.
Then, one day, I was recovering from having a wisdom tooth pulled, so I watched the show from the back. I think some of the comments and jokes were primarily understood by white people or people who really knew the hippie culture. But seeing the show as a whole, the story and characters all came together to say, “We need to be at peace and not war.”
We were taking a stand against the establishment, which, as far as I could see, was really pro-racist and pro-separatist. I finally got the message from being outside it, that, through Hair, we were taking a stand as the generation being affected. We were saying, “We’re killing each other. This is really very serious. And we’re done with it.”
About a year and a half after I began playing Dionne, I had the opportunity to make history when I became the first African American actress to replace a white actress in a leading role.
After Diane Keaton left the role of Sheila, a lot of different girls came in to replace her, but none of them were working out. They kept changing and changing until one of the black girls in the Tribe asked Jim and Jerry, “How come they always have to be white? How come you don’t let a black girl try?”
I think Jim and Jerry had just never thought of it. So they said, “Do you want to try for it?” And she said “No, but Melba might want to.” I was kind of shy—I needed that push—and I went for it. There were some other girls who wanted it, too, but I worked with the director and performed as Sheila during one of the matinees. Afterwards, they told me that I got the role.
At the time, I didn’t have that kind of far-sight or foresight or insight to realize the legacy of the show. I was just getting into show business and was too busy wondering what I was going to do for the next few years and if I was going to make it. Hair helped me come out of my shell and realize that I could do something that I loved, and that I could make a living pursuing my dreams.
I think if we make progress in society, you see it on Broadway. Progress is usually driven by the music field and other areas of entertainment, and then those stories are told on Broadway. That’s what happened with Hair—you had rock music and R&B music and then somebody came and told the story of the time with it.
After Hair opened, I had heard there might have been some negative reactions, but the only thing we experienced were people participating in it. They had a kind of wonder and were exploring an open and loving society in a way that I didn’t really see in other areas of life.
I think we are still making that kind of progress. I definitely do.
As told to Allison McNearney
Melba Moore is a Grammy-nominated singer and award-winning actress.