In a year marked by as much social and cultural upheaval as 1968, it was understandable that the New York Times review of a controversial musical newly arrived on Broadway would describe the show in political terms. “You probably don’t have to be a supporter of Eugene McCarthy to love it,” wrote critic Clive Barnes, “but I wouldn’t give it much chance among the adherents of Governor Reagan.” The show in question was Hair, the now-famous “tribal love-rock musical” that introduced the era-defining song “Aquarius” and gave New York theatergoers a full-frontal glimpse of the burgeoning 60s-counterculture esthetic. Hair premiered on Broadway on April 29, 1968.
Hair was not a brand-new show when it opened at the Biltmore Theater on this night in 1968. It began its run 40 blocks to the south, in the East Village, as the inaugural production of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Despite mediocre reviews, Hair was a big enough hit with audiences during its six-week run at the Public to win financial backing for a proposed move to Broadway. While this kind of move would later become more common, it was exceedingly rare for a musical at the time, and it was a particularly bold move for a musical with a nontraditional score. Hair, after all, was the first rock musical to make a play for mainstream success on the Great White Way. But the novelty of the show didn’t stop with its music or references to sex and drugs. Hair also featured a much-talked-about scene at the end of its first act in which the cast appeared completely nude on the dimly lit stage.
It turned out that these potentially shocking breaks from Broadway tradition turned didn’t turn off Broadway audiences at all. Hair quickly became not just a smash-hit show, but a genuine cultural phenomenon that spawned a million-selling original cast recording and a #1 song on the pop charts for the Fifth Dimension. Forty years after its initial downtown opening, Charles Isherwood, writing for the New York Times, placed Hair in its proper historical context: “For darker, knottier and more richly textured sonic experiences of the times, you turn to the Doors or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. Or all of them. For an escapist dose of the sweet sound of youth brimming with hope that the world is going to change tomorrow, you listen to Hair and let the sunshine in.”