R.I.P. James Rado

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

We are sad to report the passing of James Rado (James Radomski, 1932-2022) earlier this week. Rado was best known as the writer of the book and lyrics (with partner Jerome Ragni) of the musical Hair (1967-1972), and for originating the part of Claude in that show on Broadway.

I wrote about my enthusiasm for Hair here, when composer Galt MacDermott passed away a few years ago. A little quick math reveals something interesting. Rado and his cohorts were not young when this, the ultimate youth musical, made its splash. Rado was 40 when the Broadway show closed, although work on the show had begun years earlier. These middle aged men were just entranced by the hippie movement and wanted to capture something of the exciting vitality and possibility they saw around them, so much so that they began emulating it themselves. We most certainly could use even a tiny kernel of the optimism of that era right at this moment, for the Age of Aquarius has not unfolded quite as many had hoped, wouldn’t you say? We still have war, poverty, racism; if anything all those things seems to be intensifying. But for a minute a half century ago, it seemed just a matter of everyone rolling up their sleeves and changing things.

Rado had written his first musicals while a student at the University of Maryland and Catholic University. He served two years in the Navy, which I’m guessing enhanced his appreciation of The Brig, if he’d happened to see it at the time. He studied with Lee Strasberg, and was cast in the Broadway shows Luther (1963-64), and Marathon ’33 (1963-64). In fall of 1964 he performed in an off-Broadway show called Hang Down Your Head and Die (an apparently reference to the folk song “Tom Dooley”) and that’s where he met Ragni. If you want to see how the two hit it off I highly recommend the 1969 Agnes Varda movie Lions Love (and Lies…). We caught it a couple of years ago, initially not knowing that Rado and Ragni were in it. It captures a moment of transition; Hair was already a downtown hit, but not yet the international sensation it would become. You get to see the pair ad lib and interact and kid around, and it’s highly enjoyable.

Interestingly, Rado appeared in the original Broadway production of The Lion in Winter (1966) as Richard the Lion Heart, before Hair even hit, working alongside Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and a young Christopher Walken. Work on the writing of Hair was already happening at that point. The show premiered at La Mama, before moving to Broadway. Naturally, Rado wrote and co-wrote several subsequent shows after that time, though a good part of Rado’s career has consisted with dealing with Hair revivals, and Hair business of one kind or another (the film adaptation, recordings of the songs etc).

But one glorious aspect of the man is that he never left downtown or experimental theatre. The photo above was taken at Theater for the New City’s Love ‘n’ Courage gala at the Players Club in 2020, where he was guest of honor. Rado was involved with TNC throughout the years, and had been scheduled to perform something at this year’s Lower East Side Festival of the Arts, although ill health prevented his attending. His illness finally took him two days ago at the age of 90. Look at that photo! Does he look 90 to you? SOMETHING kept him young. I like to think it was the peace of mind of a free spirit.