No one seemed to be paying much attention to the slow-moving hippie on the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on a recent Tuesday night.

But when the lights went down and the actors entered the stage through the aisles, the audience knew exactly why they were there.

"When the moon is in the seventh house/And Jupiter aligns with Mars/Then peace will guide the planets/And love will steer the stars."

"This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Aquarius! Aquarius!"

"Hair" is back on Broadway

"Hair" is back on Broadway 42 years after it became a theater sensation by harnessing youth culture, an up-to-the-minute soundtrack and a general re-imagination of the American musical.

With a fully integrated cast, on-stage nudity and songs that became pop hits soon after their stage premieres, "Hair" wasn't a rock opera. It was, however, remarkable in its channeling of youth culture in almost real time. When it opened in 1967 at the Public Theater, it fulfilled Joseph Papp's mission of bringing the issues of the day directly to the Public's stage. After opening on Broadway in April 1968, the show ran for 1,750 performances, followed by nearly 2,000 in London.

Songs like "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine" and "Let the Sun Shine In" became theatrical and popular standards. Songs from the score have been recorded by Nina Simone, Three Dog Night and The Fifth Dimension.

"Hair" officially opens Tuesday but the revival's success has already been tested: A Public Theater production in Central Park became one of the premiere cultural events of last summer.

James Rado, who wrote the book and lyrics to "Hair" with the late Gerome Ragni, isn't sure how the musical has connected with a new audience. "That's a mystery to me," he admits. "All I could think of was that maybe their parents may have had the album. There's still a youthfulness to the story and there are modern concerns plus the tribal thing of kids their own age. 'Hair' kind of reinforces the (President) Obama message of change, it reinforces that hope for something new and wonderful to take place. It's very timely."

The "Hair" on stage now is a return to Ragni and Rado's original vision, which was altered along the way from The Public Theatre presentation in 1967 to the Great White Way in 1968.

"We wanted to break the mold," Rado says. "Coming from a background of loving musicals, we felt this was the time"¦We knew we were breaking form. It was kind of like a little crusade we had to excite and thrill the audience. Things were very human and thrilling to us on the street. We were bringing real life and the street into the theater."

"Hair" is the story of a group of New York City teenagers undergoing extreme awakenings (politically, sexually, psychedelically) against the backdrop of Vietnam and the traditional ways of their parents. The two central male characters, Berger, the extroverted dreamer; and Claude, the conflicted ideologist, are based on Ragni and Rado, respectively, both of whom played the roles when the show first opened on Broadway.

Rado stops short of calling "Hair" autobiographical. He and Ragni met in 1964 while both were acting off-Broadway in "Hang Down Your Head and Die." "I think there's something of Claude's temperament that was probably me," Rado says. "I also wrote a lot of Berger and Jerry wrote a lot of me."

Seeing "Hair" in preview, it's not surprising to see the audience treating the songs as classics, anticipating them and singing along. Although re-creating the fashion of the hippies appears slightly forced, the rest of this show has effortlessly transitioned into the 21st century. It could be easy for many of the songs to be lost in hippie-dippie nostalgia. Instead, the cast finds new life in them. The band on stage includes a horn section, but the driving guitars provide the music's constant.

Martha LoMonaco, director of Fairfield University's Theatre Program, remembers taking a bus trip as an eighth-grader from her home in Allentown, Pa., to see the Broadway production. "My friend and I were so loquacious, filling in the suburban adults," she says. "The suburban people were allured and fascinated by the phenomenon of the hippies. This was a safe way to experience the hippie environment."

In 1999, producing her own version of "Hair" in Fairfield as part of a campuswide project focusing on the 1960s, LoMonaco's research led her to The Joseph Papp/New York Shakespeare Festival Archives at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. As she had suspected, there were significant differences in the show that opened at the Public Theatre in 1967 and the one that wound up on Broadway the following year (there was a pit stop at a midtown discotheque in between). She has published two essays on her experience with "Hair." Her research led to the discovery that Rado and Ragni were really aiming to document a new youth culture, aka the Tribe. In her articles, LoMonaco traces the show from its counter-cultural origins to its success as a mainstream commodity. More than a dozen actors were added for the show's Broadway opening. The plot, not overly strong to begin with, was loosened even further.

LoMonaco's research proved that "Hair" had moved from a conventional book musical at the Public to a concept musical, or happening, when it opened on Broadway. When she produced "Hair" in 1999, LoMonaco focused on what she believed were the authors' original intentions. In her production, "Let the Sun Shine In" becomes a hymn for those like Claude, who were killed in the war. Her production made Claude's agonizing over the draft central to its plot.

"The show opens with 'Aquarius' and I did see it as an anthem, coming to the rite and the ritual," she says. "It was huge at the time. The whole notion of a global community. Now this is trite. Then these were new ideas, to find community and grounding in new ideas that young people were parlaying."

"Hair" is returning at a time when the country is in the middle of a drawn-out war. The draft is central to the plot. Most of the cast burn their draft cards. Claude is torn and at the show's end we learn he becomes a casualty of war. How much of that plays with today's audience remains to be seen.

"The staying power is that it was the first concept musical, the story line didn't drive it, but the political overtones made it unique. There really wasn't a rock musical until then," says Robert Thompson, interim dean at the Purchase Conservatory of Music, who saw the musical on Broadway in the late 1960s. "What I found unique about it, it embodied everything about the 1960s with hair being the great equalizer, making people sort of androgynous."

Thompson recently suggested "Hair" as a Purchase College performance because students were outside protesting tuition increases while they discussed what shows to stage in the coming season. "I have not seen a protest on a college campus in 40 years," he says with pride. Thompson says he believes today's college students realize the significance of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, when rock and folk music were viewed as vehicles for social change and poets were respected community voices. "They seem to understand the significance of it and are longing for authenticity and connection between music and society in their own lives," Thompson says.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the movie "Hair," which was directed by Milos Forman, stars Treat Williams and Beverly D'Angelo and took extreme liberties with the narrative. The film made the Claude character a Midwesterner who was spending a few days in New York before being shipped off to war. D'Angelo played Sheila, who in the musical is the intellectual and wealthy college student with a left-leaning heart of gold. In Forman's story, she is an outsider who becomes the object of Claude's affection. The film takes some very strange twists and turns at the end with Berger mistaken for Claude and shipped off to war.

Reaction to the film, especially by the theater community, is still largely negative. John Farr, who operates the Best Movies by Farr Web site and until recently wrote the DVD Detective column for The Advocate and Greenwich Time, thinks the movie gets a bad rap.

"When you talk about a movie that's been made from a play, there is always a weird kind of dynamic of people who see the movie and can't accept it the way they accepted the play," he says. "It successfully takes what was a series of vignettes and songs, Milos Forman had the job of making a film here and come up with a story that glued the thing together and allowed it to travel, all the things you can do with film that you can't do with theater."

Yet Farr admits that he didn't see the film, which also boasts choreography by Twyla Tharp, when it came out because he didn't want it to diminish his experience of having seen the play. He also remembers that by the time the movie was released, American youth culture had moved to disco and "Saturday Night Fever." "Maybe not enough time had passed to make it fresh," he says. "Now that the play is being revived, what is the point of seeing the movie? The play is going to come off better."

"I didn't see the movie until I was doing my research for the show," says LoMonaco. "The whole thing was very strange. It's another example of how 'Hair' permutated in all kinds of directions."

It would seem the closest thing "Hair" has to a historical antecedent is "Rent," which chronicled youth on New York's Lower East Side at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Is there any other of era American youth culture begging for theatrical treatment?

"The grunge era or the punk thing was visually exciting and mysterious, and just the opposite of the hippie lifestyle," Rado says. "The hippie would take you and the punk wanted to keep you out."