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"HAIR" LESSONS Broadway maven Seth Rudetsky tells tales out of school on the tribal love-rock musical.
Hi, everyone! Seth Rudetsky here, talking about my obsession: Broadway! My lastest thrill came when when I heard that the Public Theater’s revival of Hair would extend through Sept. 14th. I’ve been obsessed with Hair ever since I first saw it--when I was four! That’s right! It was the first Broadway show my parents took me to see. I don’t remember much about the show (apart from except my mom putting her hands over my eyes during the nude scene), but I loved listening to the album all the time as a kid.

Apart from the score and moving story, there are many things to learn from that show, and I’ve compiled a list of them for TDF readers. Ready? Here goes:

1. DON’T TRUST LABELS

Hair, which premiered in 1968, is widely thought of as “the first rock ’n’ roll Broadway musical.” But it isn’t! In fact, 1960 was the year Broadway first had rock music…in Bye Bye Birdie! An electric guitar on Broadway never happened before Birdie, which, if you don’t know, is the story of an Elvis-type singer being drafted into the army. The show opened in 1960, and Elvis’s first hit songs were in 1956, just four years before. Talk about cutting-edge! Charles Strouse, the composer, told me that investors didn’t want to put money into Birdie because the music was so current. Of course, all the music in Hair is rock, whereas Birdie has rock songs mixed with lots of old-school showtunes, but still…give credit where it’s due!

2. TONY WINNERS GET REJECTED, TOO

When Hair opened, a young performer named Harvey Fierstein was dying to be in it. He auditioned to be a replacement in the show by singing “Frank Mills” while wearing a dress (!), only to not be cast. Flash forward to 2004, when I was doing a concert of Hair for The Actors Fund and needed someone to sing “Air.” Who better to sing that ode to pollution than the man whose voice has always sounded like the essence of Elaine Strictch/Lauren Bacall combined with an industrial-strength pack of cigarettes? That’s right--Harvey got to perform in Hair more than 30 years after his first audition…and he’s on the CD!

When Donna Murphy (Tony winner for The King and I and Wonderful Town) was still a student at NYU, she auditioned for a Broadway revival of Hair that was running in the late ’70s. She gave a phenomenal audition, and afterwards the producers told her that she’d be definitely be hearing from then. Since she was still in college, she lived in a dorm and didn’t have her own phone. She told me that she drove the dorm's front desk crazy asking non-stop if she’d gotten a call from Hair. Alas, she never heard from them and was devastated. It wasn’t until much later that she learned the truth: Right after she auditioned, the show closed!

Priscilla Lopez, who’s currently in the smash hit In the Heights and created the role of Morales in A Chorus Line (yes, folks, she introduced the song “What I Did for Love”)—and who won the Tony for portraying Harpo Marx in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, which is why she belongs on this list—traipsed down to the Public when Hair was having its first auditions. She wore a little mini-dress with boots and was surprised to see the creative staff behind the table so…er, “relaxed.” Anyhoo, she didn’t know anything about the show, so she just sang her traditional audition song. That’s right, the hippies behind the table watched her plant herself in the middle of the audition room, nod to her pianist, and begin singing:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens

She didn’t get it.

3. BE SPECIFIC

Galt MacDermot, Hair’s composer, was playing a for-hire gig in a recording studio right before Hair was about to come to Broadway. One of the singers hired for the recording gig was a young Melba Moore. Galt thought she had an amazing voice and approached her during a break. Now remember, at that time, nobody really knew about a show called Hair--it was still very inside. Here is the dialogue that happened that day, according to Melba.

Galt: Melba, I’d like to know if you’re interested in doing Hair on Broadway?
Melba: (indignant) I didn’t go to four years of music school to do nobody’s hair on Broadway!

Hilarious! Of course, Galt explained that it wasn’t a hairdressing job, it was a starring role in a musical! She got cast, originated the song “White Boys,” and then went to star in Purlie and win the Tony Award. Good thing Galt set her straight!

4. DON’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER

When I was putting together the Hair concert for The Actors Fund, I needed someone to sing “Easy To Be Hard,” and Billy Porter recommended a young singer from American Idol named Jennifer Hudson. I contacted someone I knew who was involved in Idol, told him the date of the concert, and asked him to find out if Jennifer could do it. He got back to me and said that the Idol tour would end the night before the concert, and there was no way Jennifer could do it.

That could have been the end of it, but I also contacted a manager I knew who worked with Barry Manilow and knew Jennifer (I know that sounds convoluted and name-droppy, but it’s true). He got back to me and said that Jennifer would do anything to make it happen, and she did! She learned the song while on tour, flew out to New York the morning of the concert, rehearsed it that afternoon, made her Broadway debut that night--and brought the house down. If I had listened to the first guy and taken no for an answer, it never would have happened.

At the cast party afterward, Jennifer wound up chatting with a Broadway composer who would figure heavily in her future. It was Henry Krieger, who wrote Dreamgirls. Jennifer told him she wanted to play Effie in the movie. Two years later, she was starring in the film, for which she won the Oscar.

Mere loose ends, or lessons of Hair? You decide, dear theatregoer.

Seth Rudetsky is a Broadway musician, actor, writer, director, and all-around musical theatre savant who hosts a weekly talk show, Broadway Chatterbox, at Don't Tell Mama's. Seth also deejays on Sirius Radio and has mounted countless benefit concerts.