Gerome Ragni (born Jerome Bernard Ragni; September 11, 1935 – July 10, 1991) was an American actor, singer and songwriter, best known as the co-author of the groundbreaking 1960s musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.
Ragni was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of ten children from an impoverished Italian family.
He attended Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. It was at the latter that he discovered a flair for the dramatic, and he began studying acting with Philip Burton. Ragni made his acting debut in Washington, D.C., in 1954 playing Father Corr in Shadow and Substance. From then on he acted whenever he could find work. In 1963 he appeared in the New York production of the hit play War, at the Village South Theatre, for which he won the Barter Theatre Award for Outstanding Actor. On May 18, 1963, he married his longtime girlfriend Stephanie. They have a son named Erick.
1964 found him playing a bit part at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in the Broadway production of Hamlet, which starred Richard Burton. As a result, he appeared in Richard Burton's Hamlet, the film version of the show, released by Warner Bros. in 1964. That same year he made his first Off-Broadway appearance in the anti-capital-punishment musical Hang Down Your Head and Die at the Mayfair Theatre with friend James Rado, a fellow actor who was studying with Lee Strasberg. It played one performance. In a 2008 interview with The Advocate Rado described himself as omnisexual and Ragni's lover.
In 1965 he took on the role of Tom in The Knack, the play that opened the New Theatre, and later appeared in the touring company with Rado. During the show's Chicago run Rado and Ragni tried to revive Hang Down Your Head and Die with as much of the script as they remembered. They also planned to introduce some new songs and material in a collaboration with Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall, of the Siegel-Schwall Band, whom they met playing in a beatnik coffee house off the Harper Street strip. They spent time writing ideas for the show which was to be a four-man presentation performed by Rado, Ragni, Schwall and Siegel in a house on the South Side of Chicago and an apartment on Stony Island Avenue. Rado and Ragni rented the Harper Theatre, where The Knack was showing, to perform the musical. Two weeks later the company went back to New York and they had to leave, abandoning their plans for Hang Down Your Head and Die.
Ragni had been involved with The Open Theater and its experimental techniques since it was originally part of the Living Theatre in 1962. He had come up with the new name in the split from the Living Theatre. In 1966 The Open Theatre began rehearsals for the Megan Terry play Viet Rock. Ragni took a leading role in the show and was in the cast when the play opened at the Martinique Theatre in New York where it had a successful run.
Viet Rock and the experimental techniques associated with it inspired him to work with Rado on a musical about hippies and their environment. Research had to be undertaken so they associated with a group of youths in the East Village who were dropping out and dodging the draft. They talked to characters in the streets and people they knew, read lots of articles in the press and media about hippies and kids being kicked out of school for growing their hair long. Soon the lyrics to thirteen songs — "Ain't Got No", "I Got Life", "Reading and Writing", "Don't Put It Down", "Sodomy", "Colored Spade", "Manchester, England", "Frank Mills", "We Look at One Another", "Hair", "Aquarius", "Easy to Be Hard", "Good Morning Starshine" and "Where Do I Go?" — and a first draft of the show titled Hair were complete. Two of these thirteen songs were removed, many were revised and titles changed and more were written.
Once they had a complete draft of the show that they liked they brought it to producer Nat Shapiro for consideration. His response to the songs was "Where's the music?" He introduced Rado and Ragni to composer Galt MacDermot, who was given the script and came back three weeks later with music for the handful of songs that were then specified in the script. Their agent, Janet Roberts, then tried to sell it to Broadway producers but it was rejected by all. Joseph Papp, of the New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre, called and said he wanted to produce it at his new theatre on Lafayette Street. Gerald Freedman was the artistic director and was signed on to direct the first production of the show. On October 29, 1967 Hair opened at The Public Theater with Ragni as Berger, MacDermot as one of the phony cops that bust the show at the end of the first act, and Rado as Claude (for the first ten performances only). Michael Butler attended the opening and many subsequent performances and was dissatisfied that Rado was not regularly playing Claude as he felt Rado had a natural affinity for the part.
Butler was immediately interested and wanted to move it to Broadway. He bought the rights from Papp for $50,000 and got ready to stage a whole new, grander production with Tom O'Horgan, who Ragni knew from off-Broadway, directing. In the meantime the show moved to a nightclub in Midtown, called Cheetah, where it had a month-long run. When O'Horgan signed there was a cast overhaul and Alvin Ailey was hired as choreographer with Bertrand Castelli sharing directorial duties as executive producer. Ailey left the show early on to be replaced by choreographer Julie Arenal, assistant to Anna Sokolow, who had created the dances and choreographed the off-Broadway run.
On April 29, 1968 the show re-opened in its complete revised form at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway. Rado and Ragni reprised their roles from the off-Broadway production. MacDermot was now the show's musical director. The songs became hit singles for Liza Minnelli, Nelson Riddle, The Staples Singers, MacDermot himself, Quincy Jones, Three Dog Night, The Cowsills, Madeline Bell, Paul Jones, Sonja Kristina, The 5th Dimension, Oliver, Caterina Valente, and Barbra Streisand. The Broadway cast Hair album on RCA Records topped the US charts for a year. The 1970 album DisinHAIRited contained earlier songs cut from the revised production.
The Broadway production was a traumatic experience for Ragni. He became wealthy, his marriage broke up and he fell from mainstream society. He joined a Christian cult and contributed money to the Black Panther Party and Yippie causes. Not long after the Broadway production he and Rado went to Los Angeles and played their signature roles in that production. They stayed for five months, making changes to the show as they performed. When they returned to the Broadway production his habit of making changes to the show without telling the staff became a bit of a nuisance. In one incident they were arrested after walking nude down the aisle with Rado during a performance. At another point there were guards outside the theatre with Ragni and Rado barred from entering. When the conflict was resolved all the changes were written into the script and they rejoined the show. Soon after Ragni moved into the touring companies, playing Berger for many performances in many cities.
Shortly after Hair became a big hit Ragni, Rado, and Viva, the Andy Warhol "superstar," made the movie Lions Love in Los Angeles, directed by Agnes Varda. Full of improvised scenes involving the three stars, who are supposedly living together in L.A. while waiting for a film to start shooting, the movie is probably one of the best film records of Rado and Ragni. The pair did not appear in the 1979 film version of Hair, directed by Miloš Forman and starring Treat Williams as Berger. Both Rado and Ragni were quite upset by the film and they never approved of it, although it was generally well received.
Ragni had been working on a musical called Dude (The Highway Life) ever since Hair had opened. He had bulging notebooks filled with scribbles of dialogue and lyrics written in between meals at Max's Kansas City. Combined it was a 2,000-page script. He discussed doing the score with MacDermot after the L.A. opening, but MacDermot was doing Two Gentlemen of Verona at the time. Once done, he wrote the music to 50 of the songs in the show. Producing the musical would entail having "the interior of the [theater] scooped out and turned into a free-wheeling environmental theater in the round representing heaven and hell." "At the first run through, the stage, filled with two tons of top soil, filthied the actors and dumped dirt on everybody sitting in the first ten rows. People sneezed from the dust fumes; clouds of dirt rose into the air, making it difficult to see." The 2,000 pages were cut down to 200, a second act was written, more songs were added, and although in a constant state of change and plagued with backstage problems the show opened at The Broadway Theatre in October 1972. It was produced by Peter and Adela Holzer and starred Nell Carter, Rae Allen, Salome Bey, Ralph Carter, William Redfield, Nat Morris, and Allan Nicholls, and closed after 16 performances. Before the opening, MacDermot's label Kilmarnock Records released an album of songs from the show sung by Salome Bey.
In 1977 Ragni and Rado collaborated with Steve Margoshes on a new show called Jack Sound and His Dog Star Blowing His Final Trumpet on the Day of Doom, produced off-Broadway by the Ensemble Studio Theatre. It played a short run alongside an ill-fated Broadway revival of Hair that ran for forty-three performances and starred Ragni and Rado as the bogus cops who bust the show.
In the 1970s Ragni, Rado, MacDermot, and Margoshes collaborated on a new musical called Sun, also called YMCA, which ultimately was not produced. It was a "60-song, three-hour musical about 'evolution, with an Odyssey plot;'" "an environmental musical about politics, pollution and the rain forests being cut down among other topics." Sun had been in development since the mid-1970s and an early version was staged for backers in 1976, directed by John Vaccaro of Theatre of the Ridiculous fame, with appearances by Ruby Lynn Reyner, Annie-Joe Edwards and Ellen Foley. "Rado told New York Magazine that 'YMCA will do to the seventies what HAIR did to the sixties,' but the 1976 version never made it past rehearsals". A three-disc cast recording was made after a performance at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall by independent company Rado Records.
Revision of Rado's musical Rainbow Rainbeam Radio Roadshow: The Ghost of Vietnam (also known as Billy Earth: The New Rainbow and The White Haunted House: American Soldier) was also undertaken.
Ragni died of cancer in New York, age 55. At the time of his death he and Rado were working on a sequel to Hair.