On November 26, Michael Butler, the original producer of Hair on Broadway, turns 95. During the past 54 years, Butler has overseen 31 productions of what is still subtitled “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”; on December 4, his next—and final—production opens at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
“This could be the best production of Hair I’ve ever done,” Butler says.
Mostly, everyone knows Hair as the first Broadway musical with nudity—even though it lasted less than a minute of the two-hour running time—which prompted many cities to attempt to ban the show and led to dozens of lawsuits in which Butler almost always prevailed. But nudity was only one of its many firsts: long before Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Black female actor donned a top hat every night as Abe Lincoln and recited a mock Gettysburg Address while a blond, white girl shined her shoes. Hair’s actors played openly gay and lesbian characters while transgender and bisexuality were portrayed as equally “normal.” Dozens of unknown young actors graduated from Hair to stardom, including Diane Keaton, Donna Summer, Ben Vereen, Philip Michael Thomas, and Keith Carradine. The show’s songs remain pop-culture standards.
“The first time I saw the show, I saw what it could be,” Butler says. “It had the ability to present tolerance, peace, and love in a way that made it possible even for intolerant people to get. It changed a lot of minds.”
At the time, in 1967, Butler, who’s bisexual—his lovers included Rock Hudson, Candice Bergen, Audrey Hepburn, and Tyrone Power—was being groomed to run for the U.S. Senate with the backing of Bobby Kennedy and other high-level Democrats.
Despite his conservative up-bringing in suburban Chicago (his wealthy family owned Butler Aviation), Butler rarely played by the rules and walked away from the Senate race even though he was favored in the polls; instead, he staked his fortune on producing after seeing the nascent Hair in one of its off-Broadway productions.
As Hair exploded, Butler became the first musical producer to have 12 productions selling out nightly around the world. Broadway’s old guard was infuriated by Hair’s mega success and its upstart producer.
“Most of them hated me and the show,” he says. “One of the first things they did was to change the dates of the Tony Awards so we couldn’t qualify.” (Hair was ultimately nominated for Best Musical and Best Director.)
Now in his fifth decade of producing the musical that profoundly changed his life, Butler insists that its relevance is undimmed. “Our planet needs Hair now more than ever. If we don’t begin to focus on helping rather than destroying one another, we’re doomed.”
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