It’s been more than half a century since the American tribal love musical first hit Broadway, debuting at the Biltmore Theatre in April 1968.
The countercultural classic has had a few revivals. but I was especially looking forward to NBC’s live television production, coming to the network next spring. You see, a friend of mine, a college classmate, was to be its producer. But he died suddenly last week, of all things, complications from shoulder surgery.
Don’t ask me how.
Craig Zadan was a Miami native and a nationally respected producer. He was featured in one of the first editions of this magazine, back in 2012, when he and his business partner won a national award from GLAAD. I did the story myself.
Craig and I first met as classmates at Hofstra University 50 years ago, and I want to share publicly today for the first time our very personal story. After all, this is a gay paper, and our brief liaison on Long Beach, New York was one of my very first gay encounters.
When I met Craig, I was still dating women. I was in a fraternity. I was a jock. I had girls I was going out with in different sororities. My male to male encounters remained private and rare. Craig was gay, young and attractive, and for a brief time in our lives, though headed in different directions, we became friends.
We were both writing for the student newspaper, me covering sports, and Craig, theater and entertainment. While I was getting threatened by 280-pound defensive backs for reporting how bad the Flying Dutchmen football team was, Craig was going to Manhattan, seeing Broadway shows and meeting Joe Papp.
It was at Papp’s public New York theater that HAIR had its stage debut, six weeks before landing on Broadway and quickly stealing the hearts and souls of the 60’s generation.
It was with Joe Papp that Craig got his first job in New York theater. Getting to produce this musical on live TV next spring for NBC had to be one of the great joys of his life. He said as much in the press release announcing its production:
“It is musical theater stretched into something so daring, immersive, and audacious, relevant to any era. Hair is filled with heartfelt emotion, joy, and thrilling music...”
One special night comes to mind, the two of us alone on Long Beach. Craig was depressed, alone, and disenchanted with Hofstra University. He found the school’s conservative and suburban lifestyle unappealing, lacking the vitality and electricity of Broadway.
Craig told me he was going to drop out of school. He had been bouncing the idea off friends. I spent most of the night trying to talk him out of it, but I could tell he had made up his mind. It was a painful decision, but he saw a greater purpose.
Craig said he wanted to move into a world where he could be “true to himself.” He was being given a chance to write for “After Dark” magazine, New York’s popular gay-centric magazine, one that would open doors to the life and career he sought.
Maybe it was there that I first came upon the Shakespearean quote that still sits above my desk, and I have used in god-knows-how-many columns:
“This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be a liar any man.”
Craig was true to himself. Soon he was gone. He launched his career with Joe Papp and the NY Public Theater, but eventually moved to California, where he wrote his history in producing live and creative theater. I was not long for New York either. Seems the Yankees did not want me.
I finished school at Hofstra, got a law degree, but soon thereafter moved to Florida, writing my own history these past 40 years in law, radio and publishing.
Craig and I took different journeys on different coasts. Our paths and lives did not cross, but I must admit I would follow his successes in the Hollywood Reporter.
Flash forward then to 2012, when I read that GLAAD was giving him a national award for supporting the LGBT community. In that moment, I knew I had to contact him for an interview, to cross the bridge of four decades lost.
When I called, and got past his armada of agents and the Hollywood protocols, Craig was amazingly receptive. My story appeared in one of our first issues of the Mirror six years ago.
I loved talking to him and writing the piece. Craig’s life was well lived, and I so admired that he found personal happiness with his partner, Elwood Hopkins, and professional success with his business partner, Neil Meron.
Last week, Meron paid tribute to Zadan’s tenacity, his passion for producing, and promised that the show would go on: that HAIR will be produced for NBC next year.
When I first read months ago that Craig was producing the play “Hair” on TV, I made him promise to get me a seat in the audience. I think I might be a little too old to play a role in the cast, but for that matter so was Craig. It is not 1968, and neither of us were 18 years old anymore.
Two weeks ago, after a year of medical issues, I went for some pretty serious surgical procedures. Fourteen days later, I am back publishing newspapers and writing columns, wearing a permanently implanted defibrillator and pacemaker.
All surgery is serious, but Craig was just going for shoulder replacement surgery. Don’t ask me how I am still here writing about him but he is not here to produce another musical.
Death, like life, is too unpredictable.
I know this. I know that the plays and musicals we watch on stage are in fact the stories of our lives, capturing the essence and energy of our precious and priceless limited time on this planet.
To his credit, Craig also produced scripts that matter to us, telling important stories about race, gender equality, human rights and contemporary issues in society. There are many examples from “Serving in Silence,” starring Glenn Close as a closeted lesbian who fought her honorable discharge from the military, to this season's “Flint,” about a woman's fight in Michigan against the toxic water crisis.
Even “Hairspray,” which Craig produced on television, wrote NBC president Robert Greenblatt in a tribute last week, “has a powerful message about race relations and integration.”
The play “Hair” celebrates the exuberance and excitement of youth with magical music, but it ends with a protagonist dying in a war on a distant shore. Yet, 50 years later we remember the production as a joyful one, commemorating the Age of Aquarius.
NBC’s last live TV musical aired last April with “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” starring John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper. Online tributes to Craig came from Barbra Streisand, Carrie Underwood, Seth McFarlane and scores, if not hundreds, of Hollywood personalities. Mine is a small name to add to that starlit list.
The life of producer Craig Zadan will be celebrated in Los Angeles on Nov. 11 at an event hosted by the Educational Theatre Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting theater arts in schools and nurturing students across the country. He did OK for himself, didn’t he?
On that same evening in Fort Lauderdale, Equality Florida will be presenting me with a Media award on behalf of SFGN’s contributions to the community. It’s humbling. I guess I did OK, too. I am still trying.
On that night, though, I just might be thinking of a special night a Hofstra University classmate and I spent on a beach 50 years ago, far from the future that would eventually unfurl for both of us, thousands of miles apart.
HAIR is the story of a group of politically active hippies living a bohemian life in New York while fighting against and resisting the Vietnam War.
Claude, his good friends Berger and Sheila, and their “tribe” are coming of age in the world of the sexual revolution while struggling with their rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society.
Claude must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done, or succumb to the pressures of conservative America to serve in Vietnam, compromising his principles and beliefs.