HAIR celebrates the end of theatre censorship in Britain

The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Hair is fifty years old.  It’s themes against war and for love still echoes in today’s politics and the show is about to be revived again in London.   The original Off-Broadway production was the premier show at the then new Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in October 1967.  It was to transfer to Broadway the next year.  The Public Theatre has been in the lead for musical theatre innovation ever since and both A Chorus Line and Hamilton were developed there.

After the Broadway production was in place the creative team set their eyes on London.  It was not as simple as one would expect.  There was a great problem with the show transferring because of its liberal use of ‘the language of the street’ and the now famed (albeit brief and darkly lit) nude scene.   For a play to be produced on the London stage the play script and stage instructions had to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to be scrutinised to ensure there was nothing to upset the sensitivities of the audience (usually considered to be entirely made up of maiden aunts).  Bad language was indeed out and the moving nude female body was out of the question – the thought of a nude male body on stage was unthinkable.

In fact plays with outrageous subjects such as homosexuality and loose morals without a suitable punishment could be seen – but the theatre presenting it would have to be designated a private club with members playing a token yearly membership subscription.  ‘Disgusting’ plays such as Tea and Sympathy and Children’s Hour were seen under such circumstances.

But the timing of Hair’s planned London showing was superb.  There was a liberal change in the air and in 1967 homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence under limited circumstances (being a lesbian was never illegal).  Then came the Theatres Act 1968 which was to abolish stage censorship.  The Bill was passed on 26 September 1968.   

And so, Hair is historically important to the London stage when it opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 27 September 1968.  It was the first non-club theatre play to open without censorship having to be considered.  It was liberating and it became an immediate hit, exceeding the run of the Broadway production with 1997 performances.  And the run could well have been much longer for the closure was brought about by the Theatre’s ceiling collapsing – luckily when the theatre was closed.  There was a mystery around this accident which has never been solved.

Almost fifty years ago a set of young unknown actors and actresses (as they were in those days) stepped on that London stage and, at the end of the first act, dutifully disrobed. Tim Curry, Paul Nicholas, Richard O’Brien, Elaine Paige, Peter Straker and Oliver Tobias among them.  Richard O’Brien was about to write The Rocky Horror Show and Tim Curry would star in it – all thanks to Hair. 

Revivals in London have not proved to be long running.  The 1993 production at the Old Vic starred John Barrowman – although he left the stage prior to the famed nude sequence.  The 2010 revival was a transfer of the Broadway hit revival of 2008, it played the Gielgud Theatre.  This production was originally seen at the Public Theatre before transferring to Broadway.  The London production ran for five months with many of the Broadway cast coming over for it.

Hair will always have a place in musical theatre history – not simply for the nude scene, but the ‘modern’ score and ‘modern’ themes.  It was a musical of the time and one that has an important place in the history of the Musical.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive