Hair-co-writer’s creativity brought alive hippie

Rado’s genius as a creative artiste is almost entirely defined by Hair, the seminal rock musical he co-created with Gerome Ragni

James Rado’s creativity defined an emerging societal shift that America saw in the late sixties, succinctly depicted in the rock musical Hair, which he co-wrote with Gerome Ragni. Hair brought alive the hippie counter culture of the era, and is considered to this day as one of the greatest depictions of that movement. The musical was a work of art that prompted a rethink in the world’s outlook towards sexuality and freedom. Rado and Ragni’s seminal rock musical would go on to see multiple productions over five decades since it was first staged Off-Broadway in 1967. Over the decades, and till as recently as in 2019, Hair has been staged several times in Broadway and the West End, besides seeing numerous revivals and tours.

Rado, who breathed his last in New York City at the age of 90 following a cardiorespiratory arrest, was the last of the great minds that brought the cult classic alive. Ragni passed away in 1991 and Galt MacDermot, who composed the musical, died in 2018. In every way, Rado’s death marks the end of a glorious chapter of Broadway history.

Hair the musical was much more than a hit production down the decades. The importance of Rado and Ragni’s work, whose complete title is Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, lies in the fact that it would change the aesthetic outlook that ruled mainstream Broadway till before the production was first staged in New York’s elite theatre district in April 1968. To start with, Hair would popularise the genre of the rock musical. Structurally, the musical revolutionised how commercial plays would be presented and seen by introducing an interactive element whereby live audience would be invited to the stage to participate in the final act. Hair was also one of the earliest successful Broadway productions to operate with a multi-race cast, long before talk of inclusivity was in vogue.

The more pertinent impact was the one that the musical had on the American psyche with its pervading themes, which is where the greatness of Rado and Ragni lies. The duo wrote songs that shocked the audience upon its launch owing to their uninhibited use of profanity, portrayal of drug abuse, treatment of sexuality including a graphic depiction of nudity on stage, and its rebellious notion towards the very concept of Americanism. Such was the popularity of the musical and the counter culture elements it introduced that many songs of Hair became symbols of the nation’s protests against the Vietnam War.

Beyond defining the changing mindset of a nation, the musical defined its creator, too. Rado left a hint of his own persona in the musical that so overwhelmingly defines his genius. Like Ragni, he was a struggling actor when they met for the first time. Hitting it off creatively, the duo became friends and began writing the musical in 1964. Over the years, critics and industry watchers alike have noted how Claude, a primary character in the musical, was a quiet romantic given to deep rumination just like Rado. He would play Claude in a subsequent production of the musical in Los Angeles, his place of birth.

An obituary dedicated to Rado without elaborately deliberating on Hair is quite impossible for a basic reason. Rado was a creative artiste whose greatness is almost entirely defined by that one work. To this day, an automatic recall of the name James Rado remains as the man who co-wrote Hair the book as well as the lyrics of the musical. It is a reason why, after dabbling with a few other stage productions, Rado spent the last three decades of his life working on new productions of Hair. The most notable among these was an 11-city tour of the musical he directed in 1994.

The fact is Rado could never really get over the overwhelming legacy of Hair. In the early seventies, after he parted ways with Ragni for a few years, Rado wrote a musical titled Rainbow with his brother Ted, and also composed for the production. The 1972 production was widely perceived as a sequel to Hair. Numerous productions over the decades that followed would see the concept of Rainbow being revised to make it as close to seem like a Hair follow-up as possible. Various versions of Rainbow that saw Rado echo the themes of Hair include Rainbow: The Ghost Of Vietnam, Billy Earth: The New Rainbow, American Soldier: The White Haunted House and Supersoldier.

In 1974, when Rado reunited with Ragni after their brief split, the duo collaborated to pen the musical Sun, which highlighted themes related to environment and pollution. Rado and Ragni would come together for the last time in 1978 to write the musical Jack Sound And His Dog Star Blowing His Final Trumpet On The Day Of Doom. Rado’s recent professional outing had been as creative consultant for a futuristic rock musical titled Barcode. He was associated with the indie production since 2011.

“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” Rado had once said, referring to the popular song of that name in Hair. His lyrics were based on the astrological belief that the world would soon usher the Age of Aquarius, or an era of love and humanity. Rado departed before the dawn truly happened, but his song will go on forever.

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Author: Akagamino

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