James Rado, who along with his friend and writing partner Gerome Ragni created Broadway’s seminal Age of Aquarius musical Hair, died peacefully Tuesday evening of cardio respiratory arrest in New York City, surrounded by family. He was 90.
His death was announced by his longtime friend, publicist Merle Frimark.
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Rado and Ragni, who died in 1991, wrote the book and lyrics to the landmark musical (full title: Hair – The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical), with music composed by Galt MacDermot, who died in 2018. In addition to its hugely influential insertion of a ’60s counterculture sensibility into Broadway’s mainstream, the musical contributed a score of songs that would become radio hits (often in cover versions) and stage musical standards: “Aquarius,” “Let The Sunshine In,” “Hair,” “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Easy To Be Hard,” among others.
In addition to co-creating the musical, Rado and Ragni starred in the original 1968 Broadway production, taking the lead roles of Claude and Berger, respectively. The following year, Rado, Ragni and MacDermot won a Grammy Award for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album. In 2019, the original 1968 Broadway cast recording was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and in summer 2008 a revival of Hair was presented by the Public Theater in Central Park, directed by Diana Paulus under the guidance of Rado, starring Jonathan Groff and Will Swenson. The revival proved so popular that the production moved to Broadway in 2009 and won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Born under the sign of Aquarius in Venice, California, on January 23, 1932, James Alexander Radomski grew up in Rochester, New York and Washington, DC, along with his brother Ted and sister Charlotte. He resided in Hoboken, New Jersey, until his death.
According to Frimark, Rado’s dream since his teenage years was to write a Broadway musical. He taught himself how to write lyrics from intense study of the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter and others, as well as pop music from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. In college, he wrote the music and lyrics for two shows: Interlude at the University of Maryland and Cross Your Fingers at the Catholic University of America.
After serving two years in the U.S. Navy, Rado moved to New York in 1956 to be an actor. In the early ’60s he formed a singing group, James and the Argyles. He wrote all the songs and borrowed $200 from his father to record two songs with his four male back-up singers dressed in kilts and argyle knee socks.
Five years later he got his first Broadway break when the famed director and teacher Lee Strasberg plucked him from an acting class for a small part in June Havoc’s Marathon ’33 starring Julie Harris. This led to a string of acting roles in such productions as Luther, Generation, The Knack and, in 1964, Hang Down Your Head And Die where he met fellow actor Ragni.
The two became fast friends and he told Ragni about his dream of creating a Broadway musical and proposed that they team-up to write a show about the hippies and the anti-war movement. Ragni, Frimark says, “came aboard with some of his exciting experimental poetry, his own brand of homespun humor, and a potent theatrical imagination.”
In 1966, in the midst of writing Hair, Rado got a leading role as Richard the Lionhearted in the James Goldman play The Lion in Winter starring Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Christopher Walken.
By 1967, three years after deciding to collaborate, Rado and Ragni had a presentable text called Hair but no one to produce it. On a train back to New York after an acting gig at Yale University (in Megan Terry’s Viet Rock), Ragni sat across from another passenger, the producer Joseph Papp. Ragni handed Papp the Hair script. “Papp liked what he read and called the ‘creative trio’ into his office to hear the score,” according to Frimark. By that point, MacDermot was well into composing the music for their lyrics. With Galt at the piano, Rado and Ragni sang their songs for Papp.
Papp decided to open his newly-founded New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater (on New York City’s Lower East Side) with Hair. On October 17, 1967, Rado and Ragni’s show was staged for the first time under the direction of Gerald Freedman, running for eight weeks. Michael Butler saw a performance and acquired the rights from Papp to move the production, under his auspices as an independent producer, to the Cheetah Nightclub for one month.
Soon the authors, with their eyes on Broadway, convinced Butler to re-cast the show and bring in a new director named Tom O’Horgan. An advanced script included 13 new songs. The new cast – or Tribe, in the parlance of the show and the times, was comprised of five performers from the Public Theater production plus 17 new faces.
Hair opened at Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre on on April 29, 1968, with Rado and Ragni joined in the cast by Lamont Washington, Shelley Plimpton, Lynn Kellogg, Sally Eaton, Steve Curry, Natalie Mosco, Marjorie Lipari, Robert I Rubinsky and stars-in-the-making Melba Moore and Diane Keaton. The show ran for 1,750 performances.
Famous – or infamous – for its then-shocking nude scene, Hair became a cultural phenomenon, contributing songs that would become ubiquitous radio hits for, among others, the Fifth Dimension (“Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In”), the Cowsills (“Hair”), the single-named pop star Oliver (“Good Morning Starshine”), Three Dog Night (“Easy To Be Hard”) and Nina Simone (“Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”).
The popularity of the show and its music prompted open-ended engagements of Hair in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Toronto, Las Vegas, Seattle, Miami, Montreal, Detroit, and Acapulco while the Broadway company continued its run.
Worldwide productions of Hair with some 14 companies soon were launched, including a London production that ran for nearly 2,000 performances.
The Broadway cast album was a smash hit as well. It spent 13 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, stayed on the chart for nearly three years and won a Grammy. The 5th Dimension had a No. 1 singles covering “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” in 1969, and the Cowsills hit No. 2 that year with their take on “Hair.” Oliver’s “Good Morning Starshine” and Three Dog Night’s “Easy to Be Hard” also hit the U.S. Top 5.
A film version of Hair, directed by Milos Forman, starring Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D’Angelo, was released in March 1979.
The musical became something of a training ground for young actor-singers destined for stardom. Among the notable cast members over the years: Joe Mantegna, Heather MacRae, Dale Soules, Meat Loaf, Keith Carradine, Paul Jabara, Sally Eaton, Donna Summer, Ted Neeley, Allan Nicholls, Robin McNamara, Peppy Castro, Ted Lange, Tim Curry, Elaine Paige, Paul Nicholas, Jennifer Warnes, Lorrie Davis, Leata Galloway, Joe Morton, Richard O’Brien, Loretta Devine, Ellen Foley, David Patrick Kelly, Charlayne Woodard, Vicki Sue Robinson and many more.
Rado was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, remained active until his death and in the intervening years has been working on two other theater pieces – American Rainbow and Sun – in addition to supervising various productions of Hair around the world.
He is survived by his brother Ted Rado, sister-in-law Kay Rado, nieces Melanie Khoury, Emily DiBona, Melissa Stuart, great nieces, a great nephew and, as Frimark notes, his devoted Hair tribe around the world. A Celebration of his Life will be announced at a later date.
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