Hair was conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni. The two met in 1964 when they performed together in the Off-Broadway flop Hang Down Your Head and Die, and they began writing Hair together in late 1964. The main characters were autobiographical, with Rado's Claude being a pensive romantic and Ragni's Berger an extrovert. Their close relationship, including its volatility, was reflected in the musical. Rado explained, "We were great friends. It was a passionate kind of relationship that we directed into creativity, into writing, into creating this piece. We put the drama between us on stage."
Rado described the inspiration for Hair as "a combination of some characters we met in the streets, people we knew and our own imaginations. We knew this group of kids in the East Village who were dropping out and dodging the draft, and there were also lots of articles in the press about how kids were being kicked out of school for growing their hair long". He recalled, "There was so much excitement in the streets and the parks and the hippie areas, and we thought if we could transmit this excitement to the stage it would be wonderful. ... We hung out with them and went to their Be-Ins [and] let our hair grow." Many cast members (Shelley Plimpton in particular) were recruited right off the street. Rado said, "It was very important historically, and if we hadn't written it, there'd not be any examples. You could read about it and see film clips, but you'd never experience it. We thought, 'This is happening in the streets', and we wanted to bring it to the stage."
Rado and Ragni came from different artistic backgrounds. In college, Rado wrote musical revues and aspired to be a Broadway composer in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. He went on to study acting with Lee Strasberg. Ragni, on the other hand, was an active member of The Open Theater, one of several groups, mostly Off-off Broadway, that were developing experimental theatre techniques. He introduced Rado to the modern theatre styles and methods being developed at The Open Theater. In 1966, while the two were developing Hair, Ragni performed in The Open Theater's production of Megan Terry's play, Viet Rock, a story about young men being deployed to the Vietnam War. In addition to the war theme, Viet Rock employed the improvisational exercises being used in the experimental theatre scene and later used in the development of Hair.
Rado and Ragni brought their drafts of the show to producer Eric Blau who, through common friend Nat Shapiro, connected the two with Canadian composer Galt MacDermot. MacDermot had won a Grammy Award in 1961 for his composition "African Waltz" (recorded by Cannonball Adderley). The composer's lifestyle was in marked contrast to his co-creators: "I had short hair, a wife, and, at that point, four children, and I lived on Staten Island." "I never even heard of a hippie when I met Rado and Ragni." But he shared their enthusiasm to do a rock and roll show. "We work independently", explained MacDermot in May 1968. "I prefer it that way. They hand me the material. I set it to music." MacDermot wrote the first score in three weeks, starting with the songs "I Got Life", "Ain't Got No", "Where Do I Go" and the title song. He first wrote "Aquarius" as an unconventional art piece, but later rewrote it into an uplifting anthem.
The creators pitched the show to Broadway producers and received many rejections. Eventually Joe Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, decided he wanted Hair to open the new Public Theater (still under construction) in New York City's East Village. The musical was the first work by living authors that Papp produced. The production did not go smoothly: "The rehearsal and casting process was confused, the material itself incomprehensible to many of the theater’s staff. The director, Gerald Freedman, the theater's associate artistic director, withdrew in frustration during the final week of rehearsals and offered his resignation. Papp accepted it, and the choreographer Anna Sokolow took over the show. ... After a disastrous final dress rehearsal, Papp wired Mr. Freedman in Washington, where he'd fled: 'Please come back.' Mr. Freedman did."
Hair premiered off-Broadway at the Public on October 17, 1967, and ran for a limited engagement of six weeks. The lead roles were played by Walker Daniels as Claude, Ragni as Berger, Jill O'Hara as Sheila, Steve Dean as Woof, Arnold Wilkerson as Hud, Sally Eaton as Jeanie and Shelley Plimpton as Crissy. Set design was by Ming Cho Lee, costume design by Theoni Aldredge, and although Anna Sokolow began rehearsals as choreographer, Freedman received choreographer credit. Although the production had a "tepid critical reception", it was popular with audiences. A cast album was released in 1967.
Chicago businessman Michael Butler was planning to run for the U.S. Senate on an anti-war platform. After seeing an ad for Hair in The New York Times that led him to believe the show was about Native Americans, he watched the Public's production several times and joined forces with Joe Papp to reproduce the show at another New York venue after the close of its run at the Public. Papp and Butler first moved the show to The Cheetah, a discothèque at 53rd Street and Broadway. It opened there on December 22, 1967, and ran for 45 performances. There was no nudity in either the Public Theater or Cheetah production.
Revision for Broadway
Hair underwent a thorough overhaul between its closing at the Cheetah in January 1968 and its Broadway opening three months later. The off-Broadway book, already light on plot, was loosened even further and made more realistic. Thirteen new songs were added, including "Let the Sun Shine In", to make the ending more uplifting.
Before the move to Broadway, the creative team hired director Tom O'Horgan, who had built a reputation directing experimental theater at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. He had been the authors' first choice to direct the Public Theater production, but he was in Europe at the time. Newsweek described O'Horgan's directing style as "sensual, savage, and thoroughly musical ... [he] disintegrates verbal structure and often breaks up and distributes narrative and even character among different actors. ... He enjoys sensory bombardment." In rehearsals, O'Horgan used techniques passed down by Viola Spolin and Paul Sills involving role playing and improvisational "games". Many of the improvisations tried during this process were incorporated into the Broadway script. O'Horgan and new choreographer Julie Arenal encouraged freedom and spontaneity in their actors, introducing "an organic, expansive style of staging" that had never been seen before on Broadway. The inspiration to include nudity came when the authors saw an anti-war demonstration in Central Park where two men stripped naked as an expression of defiance and freedom, and they decided to incorporate the idea into the show. O'Horgan had used nudity in many of the plays he directed, and he helped integrate the idea into the fabric of the show.
Papp declined to pursue a Broadway production, and so Butler produced the show himself. For a time it seemed that Butler would be unable to secure a Broadway theater, as the Shuberts, Nederlanders and other theater owners deemed the material too controversial. However, Butler had family connections and knew important people; he persuaded Biltmore Theatre owner David Cogan to make his venue available.