James Rado, Last Surviving Co-creator of Groundbreaking Musical Hair, Dies at 90

Rado co-wrote the legendary show and was the original Claude.

James Rado
James Rado
(© Tristan Fuge)

James Rado, the book writer, lyricist, and original star of the groundbreaking musical Hair, died Tuesday, June 21, from cardio respiratory arrest. He was 90 years old.

Born an 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 late beloved sister Charlotte. He resided in Hoboken until his death.

His daydream, since he was a teenager, 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 '30s, '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 a two-year gig in the US Navy, Rado moved to New York in 1956 to be an actor. In the early 1960s 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 Luther, Generation, The Knack, and, in 1964, Hang Down Your Head and Die where he met fellow actor Gerome Ragni.

He and Ragni became fast friends, and he told Ragni about his daydream of creating a Broadway musical and proposed that they team up to write a show about the hippies and the antiwar movement that was happening all around them. Their groundbreaking Hair premiered at the Public Theater in 1967, before it transferred to Broadway, where it ran for more than 1,800 performances. On Broadway, Rado originated the role of Claude, alongside Ragni as Berger.

Hair's impact on the American musical theater cannot be overstated, fully defining the genre of "rock musical" and paving the way for productions like Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent. Its songs, including "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In" became radio hits, and the three writers received a Grammy Award for its original cast recording.

In the intervening years, Rado worked on various other pieces, including American Rainbow and Sun, and supervised Hair around the world following Ragni's death in 1991 (MacDermot passed in 2018). He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, and, in 2019, the original 1968 original cast album of Hair was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

A revival of Hair was presented by the Public Theater in Central Park in 2008, directed by Diane Paulus, with Rado's involvement. The production moved to Broadway in 2009 and won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Rado was always on hand for the show's grand finale, when the audience was allowed onstage to dance.

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 his devoted Hair tribe around the world.