50 years of 'long, beautiful Hair'

by Jamie Jenson

July 31, 2018

Professor Eric Grode shares his experience documenting the groundbreaking Broadway musical.

A photo of Professor Eric Grode
Professor Eric Grode

Eric Grode, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Newhouse, is an expert on the musical “Hair,” which he finds quite ironic. 

“People always get a kick out of my being a ‘Hair’ expert,” he says, “because … well, look at my headshot.” 

Grode says he didn’t set out to become an expert on the musical—it just kind of happened. 

Grode has written about theater for publications such as The Village Voice and The New York Times. When he began his career as a journalist in 1994, he was younger than many of his counterparts. His age, coupled with his interest in rock, rap and pop music, led him to assignments where Broadway and mainstream music intersected.

“I got a call out of the blue from a book editor who was looking to put together a big coffee table book about ‘Hair,’” he says. “This was in conjunction with a revival of it that played on Broadway.”

Grode’s 2010 book, “Hair: The Story of the Show that Defined a Generation,” is a chronicle of the musical, from its first run in 1968,  which influenced numerous other productions, to the 2010-2011 national tour. The book features 200 photographs and includes interviews with the show’s creators, who discuss the real-life events that inspired them to write the musical.

While working on the book, Grode says he talked to dozens of original cast members and production workers and developed relationships with them. They continue to update Grode with “Hair” news from time to time.

This inside knowledge makes Grode the go-to expert whenever “Hair” makes its way back into the news, such as during the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut, being celebrated this year. 

“My head was stuffed with ‘Hair’ knowledge a decade ago, but time goes by and I’ve been working on other projects, so I have to brush up a little bit.”

Grode recently penned a piece for “The New York Times” and participated in an interview with NPR about the musical.

This past month, Grode sat down with documentarian Eric Marciano to discuss Galt MacDermot, the man who wrote the score to “Hair.” Marciano has been working on a film about the composer for the past several years.

Considered to be the first rock musical—a combination of theater and rock-and-roll—“Hair” created controversy when it debuted on Broadway  in 1968. It tells the story of a group of long-haired hippies in New York City who are protesting the Vietnam War. The musical, which contains drug use, profanity and nudity, was a show unlike any other on Broadway at the time. 

Part of the reason “Hair” has never left the spotlight for too long, Grode says, is because it’s had more crossover success than any other show, including “Rent” and “Hamilton.”

Many of the songs featured in the show gained popularity after famous artists covered them. A medley by the musical group The 5th Dimension featuring “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” spent six weeks in the number one spot on the U.S. Hot 100 Billboard in 1969. “Billboard” magazine also includes the medley on several lists of the top 100 songs of all time.

“There was no avoiding ‘Hair,’ Grode says. “It was just everywhere.”

The musical also shed light on the hippie movement, which older Americans at the time struggled to understand. Grode says that because the typical theater-goer tends to be older, “Hair” was able to dispel some misconceptions people had about the younger generation in 1968.

But it did more than just that, Grode says.

In many ways, “Hair” broke all the rules. Actors appear nude in a tableau scene. The characters experiment with dope and acid. Some of the songs are sung for the sake of music instead of furthering the plot.

The show remains relevant despite its age, Grode says.

“When I talk to original cast members or people who have done it decades later, the vibe of the show is very infectious,” Grode says. “People leave having done a production of this show feeling like it’s very much within their power to change the world and think more of the world should think the way these hippies thought in 1968, which is kind of remarkable.”

When he’s not writing or talking about “Hair,” Grode is busy running the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Newhouse. Now in its 14th year, it was the first master’s degree program in arts journalism to be established at an accredited communications school. The program was made possible by a generous donation from Lola Goldring, a Syracuse University trustee, and her husband, Allen.

“The Goldring program is a place where people can spend a year thinking about the arts and why the arts matter and what culture means today, and then figure out how to put those thoughts into words,” Grode says.

Jamie Jenson is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.