Mr. Rado and Mr. Ragni, meanwhile, had decided that their lyrics needed better melodies than the ones they had written, and embarked on a search for a legitimate composer to improve the songs. The search yielded the Canadian-born Galt MacDermot, a most unlikely choice: He was slightly older than his colleagues and a straight arrow with an eclectic musical background but scant Broadway experience. Mr. MacDermot wrote the melody for versions of “Aquarius” and several other songs, on spec, in less than 36 hours. It instantly became clear that he was the ideal choice for setting Mr. Rado and Mr. Ragni’s lyric ruminations to rocking show music.
A demonstration soon ensued in Mr. Papp’s office, with Mr. MacDermot singing and playing the trio’s new songs. Impressed, Mr. Papp announced that he would open the Public with “Hair.”
Yet, second-guessing himself, he soon rescinded his offer, only to reconsider after a return office audition, this time with Mr. Rado and Mr. Ragni doing the singing. “Hair” did, in fact, open the Public Theater on Oct. 17, 1967, with the 32-year-old Mr. Ragni leading the cast as George Berger — a hippie tribe’s nominal leader — but without the 35-year-old Mr. Rado, who was deemed too old by the show’s director, Gerald Freedman, to play the doomed protagonist, Claude Hooper Bukowski, even though the character was based almost entirely on Mr. Rado himself.
“Hair” — an impressionistic near-fairy tale of a flock of flower children on the streets of New York taking LSD, burning draft cards, shocking tourists and making love before losing their conflicted comrade, Claude, to the Vietnam War — ran for eight weeks at the Public’s brand-new Anspacher Theater, generating ecstatic word of mouth and reviews that ranged from perplexed to appreciative.
A wealthy young Midwesterner with political ambitions and strong antiwar politics named Michael Butler stepped in to move the show, first to Cheetah, a nightclub on West 53rd Street, and then — much rewritten by Mr. Rado and his collaborators, and with a visionary new director, Tom O’Horgan, now in charge — on to Broadway, where Mr. Rado was restored to the cast as Claude.