James Radu, creator of ‘Musical Poetry’, dies at 90

James Radeau, who rocked Broadway in the Age of Aquarius as co-author of “Poetry,” the show, described as “American tribal rock and love,” which changed musical theater traditions while shattering the radical icons of the ’60s and rock-roll, died Tuesday night in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.

Publicist Merle Freemark, an old friend, said the cause of his death in hospital was cardiac and respiratory arrest.

Much of the power of “poetry” lies in its raw, primal spontaneity, yet Mr. Rado (pronounced RAY-doe) has struggled for years with his assistant Gerome Ragni to perfect this effect. Contrary to theatrical beliefs, he and Mr. Ragni were not actors outside of work and wrote “Hair” to generate roles they could play themselves, but New York offers regular shows with increasing biographies.

They met as members of an off-Broadway theater called “Hang Down Your Head and Die”, a London transfer that closed after one show in October 1964. Mr. Rado linked up with Mr. Ragni and soon spoke to him about collaborations in the musical that would capture the exuberant and counter-cultural youth culture of the establishment that has popped up all around them on the streets of lower Manhattan – a musical about hippies before hippies even had a name.

Mr. Radu, a musician before he became an actor, began writing songs with Mr. Rajni, which they would sometimes sing in the then cafes of Greenwich Village.

Moving into an apartment in Hoboken, NJ, where rents were cheaper than in downtown Manhattan, they borrowed a typewriter from the owner and went to work seriously writing their music, transcribing to the song of sexual liberation, racial integration, drug experiments and opposition to the escalating Vietnam War that was Their young models spur on the streets. (Later, after deciding that the music they wrote wasn’t good enough, they recruited Galt MacDermot to write new tunes for their lyrics.) In solidarity with Mr. Rado and Mr. Ragni also began letting their short hair lengthen.

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A walk through the museum in mid-1965 brought them face to face with a painting of a tuft of hair by pop artist Jim Dane. Its title was “Poetry”.

Mr. Radu later recalls, “I brought it to Jerry’s attention, and we both lost.” It has now become her fledgling musical name.

What happened next would become the stuff of Broadway legend, albeit intermittently. In October 1966, on a train platform in New Haven, Connecticut, Mr. Rajni recognized Joseph Babb, the then-manager of the itinerant New York Shakespeare Festival, and handed him a volume text of “Poetry”. Pap took it, read it and decided to consider making Poetry the opening production at his public theatre, about to finish in what was known as the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street in the East Village.

Meanwhile, Mr. Radu and Mr. Rajni set out to find a legitimate composer to improve the songs. This search yielded Canadian-born Mr. MacDermot, an unlikely choice: he was slightly older and straight arrow, with an eclectic musical background but scant Broadway experience. Mr. MacDermot wrote the tune for versions of “Aquarius” and many other songs, in less than 36 hours. It immediately became clear that it was the perfect choice to adapt Mr. Radu and Mr. Rajni’s lyrical meditations into rock music.

Soon a demonstration broke out in Mr. Papp’s office, where Mr. McDermott sang and played the trio’s new songs. Mr. Bab announced his admiration that he will open the audience with the song “Hair”.

However, after guessing himself, he quickly canceled his show, only to reconsider after a back office audition, this time with Mr. Radu and Mr. Rajni doing the singing. In fact, Hare opened the public theater on October 17, 1967, with 32-year-old Mr. Rajni leading the cast as George Berger – the nominal leader of the Hippie tribe – but without the 35-year-old Mr. Radu, who considered him The show’s director, Gerald Friedman, is too old to play the doomed hero, Claude Huber-Bukowski, even though the character was almost entirely dependent on Mr. Radu himself.

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“Poetry” ran for eight weeks at Anspacher’s brand-new theater to the audience, resulting in talk and comments that ranged from bewilderment and appreciation. A wealthy young Midwesterner with political ambitions and powerful anti-war politics named Michael Butler stepped in to move him, first to Cheetah, a West 53rd Street nightclub, then — much rewritten by Mr. Rado and his associates, and with a visionary new manager and Tom O’Hurgannow in charge – to Broadway, where Mr. Radu has been brought back to the cast as Claude.

A full obituary will be posted soon.

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