Renn Woods Remembers “Hair,” 40 Years Later


The Fordham Ram interviews Renn Woods, who sang “Aquarius” in the film “Hair,” to mark the film’s 40th anniversary. (Courtesy of Facebook)

By Ryan Di Corpo

The theatre critic Clive Barnes, in his 1968 New York Times review of the Broadway musical “Hair,” provided a few disclaimers regarding the content — lyrical and otherwise — of the production. Barnes, responding to requests to “warn readers” of what they would witness on stage, referred to explicit nudity, drug use, gay references and a particular tune that lists sex acts “more familiar to the pages of Kama Sutra then The New York Times.” But this was America in 1968, and Mr. Barnes, despite his august reputation, had much to praise about the show.

Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and featuring music by Galt McDermot, “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” transported the zeitgeist of the late 1960s counterculture and peace movements onto a startled, electrified stage. The musical, which premiered at The Public Theater in 1967 before moving to Broadway, follows Claude (James Rado at the Biltmore Theater) as he debates, along with his free-love companions, whether to break the law and refuse conscription in the Vietnam War. The original Broadway cast also included Melba Moore, Paul Jabara and Diane Keaton.

In 1979, Czech director Miloš Forman, primarily recognized in the States for his 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” adapted this gleefully radical, anti-war freak-out into a legendary cinematic landmark. To mark the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary last month, The Fordham Ram spoke with actress and singer Renn Woods on her memories of the film of “Hair” and why working with Forman was a treasured experience.

Woods, a former child star, portrayed Dorothy for part of the 1976 Broadway national tour of “The Wiz” and played Fanta in the 1977 television miniseries “Roots.” Her debut solo album, “Out of the Woods,” was released in 1979. Woods appears in the opening of Forman’s film — flowers in her hair, some 200 feet in the air — making the song “Aquarius” forever her own as it rings through Central Park.

Perhaps the film’s most famous number, “Aquarius” proclaims an epoch of love and goodwill towards all people, as evidenced by the song’s first stanza: “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.”

Woods tells of how her performance at age 19 burst into life on film.

“What happened was my agent at the time called me and said, [the production team is] looking for background singers … to do call-and-response for the song, ‘Aquarius,’” said Woods. “I love the theatre. My heart has always been in the theatre. And I had not heard of Miloš Forman, but [my agent] said, ‘Would you be interested in auditioning?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’”

The song, originally coupled with the film’s closing number, was recorded by The 5th Dimension as “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The track spent six weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. Woods was expected to sing “Let the Sunshine In” for her audition.

“The audition was called,” said Woods. “It was for me to be at the Sunset Marquis and the piano player would be available there for me. And I walked into the Sunset Marquis Hotel, and there was this room of these beautiful, smiling, expectant panel of judges — but not judgmental. The piano player counted off [“Let the Sunshine In”], and I sang the lead.

What Woods sang was “Aquarius.”

“Well, the room erupted,” said Woods. After her audition, Woods was selected to perform the number in the film, but she did not initially agree. “Because I wanted to sing ‘Easy to Be Hard,’” said Woods. “My favorite song was ‘Easy to Be Hard.’” Heartbreakingly rendered in the film by Cheryl Barnes, “Easy to Be Hard” describes the pain of Hud’s Fiancée after Hud (Dorsey Wright) leaves her and their young son.

“[Forman] kept saying, ‘You’re too young, you’re too pretty, you’re too — no, no, no,’” said Woods. Determined to perform the song, Woods met with Forman at the Hampshire House in New York. Soon, some special guests arrived.

“Baby, let me tell you, we had a ball,” said Woods. “…Several people that worked on the film came in. [Ann] Roth came in, Twyla [Tharp] came in.” According to Woods, Tharp expressed concern that “Aquarius” is “really a man’s song.” Forman was not concerned. “‘Controversy is good,’” said Forman to Woods.

Forman was no stranger to controversy. Prior to his arrival in the United States, he faced artistic censorship, severe backlash and possible imprisonment following the release of his 1967 film “The Firemen’s Ball,” which Czechoslovakian communists interpreted as a political affront. Woods had endured her own controversy, as “The Wiz” and “Roots” — both starring African-American actors and the latter concerning slavery — had plenty of detractors.

“[Forman] gave me the ability to see the wink in my work, never to take myself so seriously that I wouldn’t try something,” said Woods, who considers Forman to be her greatest director.

Wading into controversy, Woods agreed to sing “Aquarius,” and recorded the vocal in a single take in New York. “It was just a session,” said Woods. “It was just me and a rhythm section; none of the background singers were there. And we just went in and we put it down.”

For the dizzying opening sequence, which finds the viewer spinning around Woods among the trees in Central Park, Woods stood atop large crane. Shooting for the sequence lasted approximately ten days as Woods, also starring on the television sitcom “We’ve Got Each Other,” flew back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. “I was not allowed to see dailies, but I saw [the sequence] at the premiere and it took my breath away,” said Woods.

Woods’ appearance in the film certainly aided her already burgeoning career. “Whew, the phone never stopped ringing,” she said.

“Hair” was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. In his review of the film for Time, Frank Rich wrote that the picture “exceeds at all levels — as lowdown fun, as affecting drama, as exhilarating spectacle and as provocative social observation.” The musical, which James Rado and Gerome Ragni have distanced from the film, was revived on Broadway in 1977 and 2009, and in London’s West End in 2010. Woods comments on why “Hair,” both in film and on stage, continues to attract an audience.

“Because the themes are universal,” said Woods. “The people want freedom, the people don’t want war, the people want us to be united. Those things are universal. They don’t change.”

More stories from Renn Woods’ career are to be included in her upcoming autobiography, “You’ll See It ‘Cause You Believe It: Child Star Stories and Faith.”