Study Guide

Gerome Ragni

Gerome Ragni Essay - Critical Essays

Ragni, Gerome

Introduction

Gerome Ragni 1942– James Rado 1932–

Ragni—American lyricist, playwright, and actor.

Rado—(Born James Radomski) American lyricist, composer, playwright, actor, and producer.

The rock musical play Hair has become a dramatized over-view of the 1960s. The Ragni-Rado lyrics span nearly all of the issues protested and embraced by the youth of that decade. The human body, marijuana, love, and sex were celebrated by the characters while they showed their contempt for war, pollution, and the establishment in general. The rebellion even extended to the conventions of the theater as the musical progressed in a haphazard fashion. The characteristics of the show denounced by some critics, such as the lack of a plot and the seemingly unchoreographed dancing, reflected the hippie movement that advocated a carefree, unconventional lifestyle.

The Ragni-Rado lyrics and Galt MacDermot's music have most often been cited as the best aspects of the play. The lyrics have been called fresh, innocent, and vital, but also rambling and of little importance. The play was also criticized for its idealized depiction of flower children and its failure to show even one sympathetic adult. Hair's topical characterization of the sixties weakened its effect and relevancy as early as three years after its opening. However, many critics felt that although it was a period piece, it would always have meaning for those who were a part of that era's counterculture.

Since Hair, Ragni and Rado have worked independently of each other. Their individual work, however, is not considered as proficient or important as Hair. In Rado's play Rainbow which could have been the sequel to Claude's story in Hair, a young man is killed in Viet Nam and taken to the rainbow world. The lyrics of Rainbow were written by Rado, in collaboration with his brother Ted. Their use of surreal imagery has caused reviewers to compare these lyrics to the works of Lewis Carroll. Rado's music for the play, combining country, big band, and show business styles, was better received than other rock musicals for its coherence.

Ragni's Dude was not so critically acclaimed as Hair and Rainbow. The play was an allegory about "that great theater in the sky" and the loss of innocence. It was said to be unclear in its allegorical representations. The critics see the lack of structure that was so successful in Hair as failing here and generally considered it an ambitious work that fell short of its potential.

Together, Ragni and Rado created a work that was a statement for its time and appealed to theater-goers and critics alike. Although the context of Hair is considered somewhat outdated today, the issues examined remain a part of our consciousness.

Clive Barnes

If only good intentions were golden, "Hair" … would be great. As it is it is merely pretty good; an honest attempt to jolt the American musical into the nineteen-sixties, and a musical that is trying to relate to something other than Sigmund Romberg.

If it had a story—which to be honest it hasn't—that story would be about the young disenchanted, turned on by pot, switched off by the draft, living and loving, the new products of affluence, the dispossessed dropouts. That, if it had a story, would be what "Hair" is about.

But "Hair" is sparing storywise—as someone might say. A boy wants to get to bed with a certain girl before he is drafted—yet that is not what "Hair" is all about. Much more, it is a mood picture of a generation—a generation dominated by drugs, sex and the two wars, the one about color and the one about Vietnam….

The intention is clear enough—to show a generation that has freaked out of the American "bedrock foundation of baths and underarm deodorant." The picture given, however, is only honest in parts, for the authors not only have little or no interest in dramatic structure, they are also easy prey for the first shiver of theatrical exaggeration that strikes them….

Dancing, singing, swinging, prancing, the open stage becomes [the cast's] arena for protest—and although reality is always quite a long way away, it is always just near enough for you to be uncomfortably aware how far away it is. This is a pity but "Hair" is still very much worth seeing….

[Charm] is perhaps the key to "Hair." The enthusiasm of its actors, the zest of its music and the very bustle of its somewhat purposeless action, are the things that make it attractive.

Clive Barnes, "Contemporary Youth Depicted in Play," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1967 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

Edith Oliver

I have mixed feelings about "Hair."… (p. 128)

"Hair" is a musical comedy about life among the hippies in New York—a mixture of humor and put-on humor and wistfulness and smugness and self-pity and baloney—and life among the hippies can grow awfully tiresome after a while. And disagreeable as well; the second act is mostly taken up with a drug party—a farewell celebration for one of the characters, who has just been drafted—and it is a distressing concept. Even so, the show does have a life of its own, which is always rare and which cancels out some of my objections. Then, too, the sight of such a patently vigorous and high-spirited bunch drooping up and down the aisles as hippies in beads, panhandling and passing out leaf-lets, is just ironic enough to make some inroads into the attendant depressing effects…. "Hair" simply could not have existed ten years ago, and it is conceivable that it could mystify audiences ten years from now, but it does catch, and quite successfully, one of the many moods and aspects of life in this city in 1967. (pp. 128-30)

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'Hair'," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 38, November 11, 1967, pp. 127-28, 130.∗

Howard Taubman

The story line of "Hair" … is so attenuated that it would be merciful to label the piece a revue. Examined under this rubric, it can be appreciated for what it essentially is—a wild, indiscriminate explosion of exuberant, impertinent youthful talents. What if coherence is lacking, discipline meager and taste often deplorable? The youngsters—authors and performers—have the kind of vitality that sends the memories of an older theatergoer wandering back to the twenties—to the bright impudence of "The Grand Street Follies" and "The Garrick Gaieties."

"Hair," it seems to me, is today's equivalent to those Off-Broadway revues of four decades ago in which another generation of gifted newcomers proclaimed their arrival. There are, of course, significant differences in content and style, but the great, overriding similarity is that of new voices expressing themselves with a freshness and vigor that warn they mean to take over uptown one of these days….

"Hair" is much more concerned with the larger issues than its predecessors of the twenties. Although it devotes a good deal of time to the tribal rites of the hippies, it lashes out at public figures. Its comment on the war in Vietnam is biting, and its contempt for contemporary institutions is unmistakable….

Could be that the score of "Hair" will shape up as an authentic voice of the popular culture of 1967.

Howard Taubman, "'Hair'," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1967 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

Robert Brustein

The concept of a hippie musical with an electronic score is potentially very exciting, and I am convinced that the sound of rock—a sound that has developed real drive, sophistication and vitality—is destined to become of tremendous importance to our stage. But despite its effective moments, Hair is still too closely linked to the meretricious conventions of American musicals to realize this potential, and there is something intrinsically one-dimensional in the hippie movement which prevents the material from ever developing a texture of any thickness.

Since the hippies have recently become the victims of a vast publicity network, there is also something intrinsically voguish about their scene, and this gives one the recurrent feeling that Hair is going out of fashion even as it is being performed. Like Viet Rock—to which it owes its inspiration and even a few of its episodes—Hair is pieced together out of newspapers and magazine sections, being a topical series of allusions to contemporary politics and culture, designed less to convey information than to play imaginatively upon what is already known.

Some of this is entertaining, but in none of it do we sense that the authors have thought about or felt their material very deeply, and they are too mindless in their acceptance of the teenage version of reality. The nonhippie world is facilely identified as a society of Puritan Moms...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Henry Hewes

Hair has a minimum of plot, being content merely to try to describe what it is like to be a teen-age hippie. Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who wrote the book and lyrics … appear to take no sides in the war between generations. But because they are attempting to show us the world as it looks to the kids, the older people are presented as parodies of such attitudes as the one which allows a man to be proud that his son will die for his country in Vietnam….

There is a good deal of irreverent humor, and one touchingly funny song in which a girl … asks in an innocent voice that an obviously insensitive brief acquaintance return and take advantage of her and her girl friend again. Oddly enough,...

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Gerald Weales

What Hair has most to offer is the good-natured exuberance implicit in even the most ordinary rock music and embodied in the vitality of young performers. It has several amiable numbers—the ballad "Frank Mills," for instance; yet its songs are commonplace, musically and lyrically, compared to the work of the more sophisticated contemporary groups—the Rolling Stones in their most recent manifestation and the Beatles of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The plot, about which no one cares very much, is the old standard about the boy who loves the girl who loves the other boy who…. Although the show, despite its self-mockery, embraces the somewhat amorphous love ethic that is presumably...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Clive Barnes

What is so likable about "Hair" …? I think it is simply that it is so likable. So new, so fresh and so unassuming, even in its pretensions….

[When it was off-Broadway] its music came across with a kind of acid-rock, powerhouse lyricism, but the book, concerning the life and times of hippie protest was as rickety as a knock-kneed centipede.

Now the authors of the dowdy book—and brilliant lyrics—have done a very brave thing. They have in effect done away with it altogether. "Hair" is now a musical with a theme, not with a story. Nor is this all that has been done in this totally new, all lit-up, gas-fired, speed-marketed Broadway version. For one thing it has been made a great...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

William Kloman

"Hair" will be the "West Side Story" of the sixties. The difference between the two shows illustrates how far we've come in a decade. "West Side Story" had vigorous music, but a smarmy social conscience. It now seems awfully dated. In good liberal fashion, it romanticized the lower classes to within an inch of their downtrodden lives. Events have outrun its message, and the vision of slum gangs dancing into battle would probably strike today's young audience as odd, if not funny….

"Hair's" godparents are Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Marcuse, the prophet of polymorphous perversity…. Love, in "Hair," comes interracial, intrasexual, and in multiples of three. As well as the regular way….

...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

John Simon

[As an off-Broadway production] Hair was an unpretentious, charming, swinging little musical. Not without flaws, it was nevertheless youthful, zestful, tuneful, and brimful of life. In its new, Broadway version, it is merely fulsome. What happened? It would seem that the new producer was hellbent on giving uptowners a sensational revelation of how it really is; as part of that endeavor, he hired Tom O'Horgan [as director]…. Given his first go at Broadway, he was, like the producer, out to épater les bourgeois for all he was worth …; but, at the same time, care had to be exercised only to titillate the middle class, not to offend it. So, with shock and inoffensiveness as its contradictory...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

William F. Buckley, Jr.

"This, folks, is the Psychedelic Stone Age," says Claude, in the Broadway musical production, Hair. Claude opens the show by declaring that "… I'm a genius genius / I believe in Gawd / And I believe that Gawd / Believes in Claude / That's me that's me." Of course, Claude doesn't believe in Gawd—nobody does in the cast of Hair, because they are far too sophisticated, provided one understands that paganism is sophistication….

[A] great deal of energy—and talent—go into the production of this psychedelic extravaganza. It serves up everything from the shock-counter: boys love boys, American flags are desecrated, all those tired old four-letter words are used, there is male and...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Theophilus Lewis

[Hair] is a saturnalia in scatology that voices the revolt of the hippie generation, which rejects all traditional values of the social order, as well as the amenities of civilized living. There is no story, at least not one your observer could detect, only a mélange of what a few years ago were regarded as indecencies.

If the American theatre is performing its constitutional function according to Hamlet's prescription—that is, reflecting the form and pressure of the time—we are living in the most licentious era since the age of the Caesars. Perhaps Restoration society was more dissolute, but it could hardly have been more vulgar. In Hair we may be observing a Hogarthian...

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Robert Kotlowitz

[There] is something curiously attractive about [Hair's] excessiveness (and vigor), its willingness to be both flamboyant and ruthless on behalf of its cause. The evening is a series of more or less salubrious shocks to the personality; and what keeps it steadily exhilarating is a kind of good-natured improvisatory humor that sweeps almost everything that might be offensive off the boards.

It is, in many places, a very funny show. A few laughs—the most dispensable ones—are one-liners, pure raggedy-end gags, which are not better, and sometimes are far worse, than the ones Guy Bolton or Dorothy and Herbert Fields used to write for standard musicals. Most are purely visual. Early in the show,...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

Benedict Nightingale

The beleaguered youth of Hair live precarious, vulnerable lives. If it isn't the fuzz, vindictively breaking up a harmless 'suck-in' on the steps of city hall, it's the New York winter, driving them out of the parks and into bare, draughty pads. If it isn't either, it's their own nagging sensibilities. They are touchy, curiously touching people, for all their brashness and exuberance. They take things hard, ludicrously so at times. When one of them rejects the gift of an admittedly hideous yellow shirt from his girl friend, she promptly breaks into a song about social injustice, moral indignity and most of the other human evils. They feel themselves hemmed in by pressures both blunt and insidious—hence the...

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John Weightman

Hair comes rather as an anticlimax. The actual performance did not seem to contain any features that have not already been present in other avant-garde productions. (p. 165)

The theme, basically, is another protest against the Viet Nam War. A boy belonging to a drifting herd-like mass of drop-outs receives his call-up papers and, after trying ineffectually to escape his fate, has to submit and is shorn of his anarchistic locks. But these events are commented on wrily, rather than pugnaciously; it is as if the pet lamb of the flock had been snatched from the pastoral bliss of the hippie world and rudely clipped by Them, the grown-ups, the incomprehensible people who run society on the...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Clive Barnes

"Hair" is beautiful…. Nearly a year after the opening, the show has a kind of radiant freshness. It still seems as though the whole thing is swiftly, deftly and dazzlingly being improvised before your very eyes….

Seeing "Hair" again did raise a few questions. Its success stems from two things. First its perfect reflection of a generation that seems in no mood to lower its voice—it knows what whispering can do to people. Second the music by Galt MacDermot and the lyrics by Ragni and Rado. This is pop-pop, or commercial pop, with little aspirations to art—a clever and honest dilution of what is happening in pop music. Fundamentally it is pure Broadway—but Broadway 1969 rather than Broadway...

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Gene Lees

The real nature and significance of the [nude scene in Hair] seems to have gone unobserved by everyone.

Before we get into that, I want to define my position on the "moral" issue of Hair: I don't think there is one…. Perhaps the people who made and appear in Hair would like to think the "adult" world is uptight about the issue, but I don't think it is. Hair attacks only straw men, and by no stretch of the imagination is it daring….

I think Hair has no real social or philosophic point to make that hasn't been made earlier and better; it's fighting a war that has long since been won. But is it musically interesting?

Not to me it...

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John Rockwell

Hair has been the most successful music drama of the decade, if not of the entire postwar era…. [It] has been exalted as a paean to the health and vitality of today's youth, denounced as an open slander of time-tested ideals, dismissed as a commercial exploitation. Whatever one's opinions as to its worth, nobody can deny its success. (p. 9)

Hair has been widely hailed as the salvation of the Broadway musical, which has been dying an inexorable death from massive public indifference to arm-cranking chorines purveying plastic joy. But if this is so, then Hair and the phenomenon it represents must also be of great interest to opera-lovers, particularly those concerned with the...

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Peter Schjeldahl

[I dearly wish that I had seen "Hair"] earlier—say, during the lamented 1967 "Summer of Love" that gave birth to it. For, astonishingly enough, the three years of history that have changed me along with everyone else have also left a perceptible patina of age on "Hair," a patina which no amount of newly minted anti-Nixon-and-Agnew jokes can dissipate—inspiring some glum thoughts….

The unexpected trouble with it is, so to speak, at its roots.

What was surely devastating about "Hair" in its infancy was the raw topicality of its depredations—anti-Vietnam War, anti-racist, anti-"normality"—combined with the earnest sincerity of its affirmations—peace, love, sexual liberty....

(The entire section is 640 words.)

David Ewen

The psychedelic years of the late 1960's had a musical stage spokesman in Hair. The authors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, have revealed that for two years they had been putting down random ideas for a musical about the chaotic world around them, the people they knew and loved, and the people and things they hated and rebelled against, and the various other vagaries and indiscretions of the younger generation in the Vietnam war years. Whenever the authors thought of something appropriate, they jotted it down on scraps of paper…. One suspects that the authors then threw all the slips of paper high in the air, let them fall pellmell, and then proceeded to write their text by picking up the pieces of paper at...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Jonathan Swift

"What a big put-on!" is the cynical reaction many of us have on first being exposed to Hair. A closer look, however, might cause a wary reevaluation, for Hair's very dynamism could be part of our "hang-up." Unlike most plays in the theatrical tradition, every Hair production is a characteristically unique one…. The musical's ever-changing body at the same time hypnotizes us and deludes us. We must be wary of trying to read too much, of trying to find symbols in every word, in every bar of music: interpretation of the arts can be a treacherous game to play. (p. 626)

Hair has become a cause célèbre by virtue of its choice of language style. Fundamentally, however,...

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Clive Barnes

[This] godson of "Hair" never quite makes it. ["Dude"'s] pretensions are always clearer than its achievements, yet even those pretensions are not without a certain naiveté that might endear the show to some…. [Those] wonderful folks who gave us "Hair," here give us a brave try.

[Here] the lack of discipline to that imagination, a freedom that proved so charming in "Hair," chains the musical down instead of liberating it. In "Hair" the very aimlessness of the piece, its random poetry and shafts of insight could afford the luxury of a nonstructure because it was describing a life style that deliberately embraced nonstructured patterns as its aim. "Dude," on the other hand, seems to be an allegory...

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Walter Kerr

"Dude" might have been waved away as just another failed musical if it hadn't been for two things: its pedigree and its challenge. We were entirely aware of both as we sat—in the foothills, in the mountains, in the valleys, among the trees—watching it on opening night. The pedigree? "Dude" was by the authors of "Hair," that watershed rock festival that changed the minds of the country about what it wanted to look at and listen to. The challenge? The producers and authors of "Dude" made it plain by word and woodwind, by hammer and chisel, that they were out to restructure the contemporary theater in every conceivable way.

Let's take the restructuring first, since that is where the occasion's...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Clive Barnes

The progenies of "Hair" have not enjoyed a great track record. It is therefore all the more pleasant to report that the latest of that tribe, "Rainbow,"… is a distinct success. It has the style, manner and energy of "Hair," as well as its chaotic organization and its simplistic view of a far from simple world….

The musical is joyous and life-assertive. It is the first musical to derive from "Hair" that really seems to have the confidence of a new creation about it, largely derived from James Rado's sweet and fresh music and lyrics.

"Rainbow" almost literally takes off from where "Hair" ended. At the end of "Hair," Claude, the drafted dropout, is killed in Vietnam. In "Rainbow,"...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Walter Kerr

I was made seriously uncomfortable in the theater … last week … by a naive strain of what I suppose we've got to call triumphalism. That is to say, I was … asked to believe in much too easy a victory….

[A second act sequence in "Rainbow"], I am sorry to say, curdled my blood.

It came about this way. The first half of the entertainment began with the levitation of an American soldier freshly killed in Vietnam, while all about his flag-draped bier a group of non-mourners in curiously old-fashioned psychedelic robes, eye spangles, red hands and daubed foreheads sang him a welcome to their heavenly Radio Rainbeam show….

James Rado's songs … were enlivening,...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Radcliffe Joe

["Rainbow"] is a brave little musical that makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in originality. (p. 13)

One gets the feeling that the show was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek backlash at the social and political structure of our present day society, for it does, somewhat feebly, try to poke fun at everything from God, religion, homosexuality, and the generation gap, to the President of the United States and the war in Vietnam. This basically has been its undoing, for in trying to be all things to all men, it succeeds only in becoming cluttered, confused, and lacking in direction.

The music, too, lacks originality running the gamut from old-fashioned revival meetings and musical sounds...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

Richard Eder

Nothing ages worse than graffiti. "Hair," the hippie musical, was a raffish slogan scrawled in day-glow upon the institutional walls of the late 1960's.

Its message—liberation, joy, pot and multiform sex, the vision of youth as a social class of its own and, in short, the notion that there can be flowers without stalks, roots or muck to grow in has faded.

It is too far gone to be timely; too recently gone to be history or even nostalgia. Its revival has no particular occasion to it, and so it must stand or fall quite badly upon its own merits.

It falls, or rather it sags. Its virtues remain, but 10 years after its first appearance they look much feebler than they...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Brendan Gill

Why on earth should anyone have wished to bring back "Hair"? Surely not for any reason as simple as making money. No, I Fear that its producers believed in it and will perhaps not understand why its return amounts to an embarrassment. The novelties that proved attractive almost a decade ago—the easygoing, not to say fugitive, book, the informal relations between audience and cast, and the endearing (and never very erotic) nudity—have lost their power to move us. Except for two or three charming songs, what remains is a sort of cold dregs, which fail to give us even the sorry satisfaction of tasting bitter. It is simply there, poor "Hair,"… all feverishly abustle and all, alas, lifeless.

...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

John Simon

[When Hair! first appeared in 1967] it was carefree going indeed. True, there were weaknesses, but the show's flower children were in full bloom, the anti-war protest resonated endearingly….

By the time Hair was transferred to Broadway—stripped of most of its story line yet bloated and made vastly noisier, gimmicked and camped up by its clever but coarse new director, Tom O'Horgan—it lost most of its appeal. The chief new device was nudity—and what self-conscious and self-righteous nudity it was! Yet it succeeded, as souped-up versions of ingenuous little trouvailles hailed by the cognoscenti so often do. A decade later, the show is not yet a nostalgia-laden antique, but...

(The entire section is 148 words.)