Interview with James Rado

By Scott Vogel

From the moment they stride onto the stage, a mass of tie-dyed shirts and dirty feet and bandaged toes, the air redolent of incense and dying daisies, one worries for the cast of Hair. One worries because the show, on this, its 30th anniversary, has seemingly few weapons left in its arsenal. After all, "snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty" coifs are hardly a shock these days. The four- letter word - in all its varieties - is a theatrical staple, and nudity (especially in gay theatre) virtually a requirement. As Claude Hooper Bukowski would say, this is 1998, dearies, not 1968. So one fears for the fresh-faced, dentally-perfect children of Oprah and cyberspace as they mount the boards. With what could they possibly shock us now?

The answer is: quite a lot. And the shock hits at a deeper and more unsettling level than ever previously, perhaps because it can finally be disentangled from all that publicity-grabbing disrobement and flag desecration.

"You get desensitized to these things," says James Rado, co-writer of Hair's book and lyrics, in a recent interview with oobr. "You just can't recapture the same initial effect that [the show] had on people. But I think what you get instead is something else."

What is that something else? Perhaps it is a clearer evocation of Hair's themes of alienation and civil disobedience. Or a more finely etched portrait of youth on the edge of adulthood, a generation energized (often chemically) and unabashedly political. Pick your poison, it all seems shocking today. In an era when drama denies politics as Clinton denies Lewinsky, when culinary theatre is the soup du decade, Hair is once again an oddball anomaly. It is a musical play with the fervent and almost quaint wish to convert an audience, to change its mind. That fact alone may make Hair seem old-fashioned to many. But is Hair dated, or are we?

"I think I started out trying to be very objective about the flow of the play" -- says Rado, admitting that he has retooled several scenes and added lyrics for Third Eye's production -- "the flow of what story there is in the play... and trying to see it in the eyes of a late 1990s audience, who had maybe only seen the movie." Hair groupies needn't worry, however; the changes are hardly radical. "You could deconstruct it and so forth," he says, "and that might be valid if somebody comes up and does it brilliantly." For now, however, the intention is to produce the authentic article, with a few added ornaments, like a new second verse to "Aquarius":

As our hearts go beating through the night
We dance into the dawn of day
To be the bearers of the water
Our light will lead the way
We are the spirit of the Age of Aquarius...

In other words, Hair is very much a work in progress. In progress to Broadway once again, Rado hopes. But is there room on the Great White Way for a second tribe of la vie bohem-ing East Village types? During Rent's long genesis, hadn't Jonathan Larson said he wanted his musical to be a "Hair for the '90s"? Well, as Third Eye's bold and exciting production proves, there might soon be some competition for that distinction. "It's an unexpected blessing," says Rado, of the fresh new staging.

And, thankfully, something of a shock.

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Copyright 1998 Scott Vogel