Michael Butler, Who Brought ‘Hair’ to Broadway, Dies at 95

Michael Butler, a flamboyant financier and producer who brought the groundbreaking rock musical “Hair” to Broadway in 1968 and then to the world via a dozen road companies, died on Nov. 7 at a nursing home in Reseda, Calif. He was 95.

His family announced the death.

Mr. Butler was from a moneyed Chicago family, the Butlers of Butler Paper Corporation and Butler Aviation, and he was comfortable in the world of polo and debutantes and expensive clothes. So when he put his money behind “the American tribal love-rock musical,” as the show called itself, the incongruity was hard to ignore.

“Butler, who is driven about in an antique Rolls-Royce, feels he’s a hippie,” Newsday wrote in 1968, two months after “Hair” opened on Broadway. “He even looks like a hippie, in leather jacket, bushy mustache and long hair. But the jacket cost a bundle from an exclusive men’s shop in town.”

Also incongruous was that Mr. Butler’s only previous producing experience had involved staging polo matches and similar sporting events. He had seen the original Off Broadway version of “Hair,” produced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theater in 1967, and decided he was the person to take it to Broadway.

But not without some changes. He thought the downtown version of the show was too “beatnik.”

“Beatnik is put-down, negative, drag,” he explained to The Los Angeles Times in 1969. “Hippie is put-on, positive, beautiful.”

So for the Broadway transfer, the show’s creators — the book was by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the lyrics were by Mr. Rado and the music was by Galt MacDermot — made the show more “hippie.” Oh, and the reworked version added the now-famous nude scene at the end of the first act, startling for Broadway at the time, during which assorted cast members briefly stood naked.

Mr. Papp wasn’t enamored of some of the changes.

“He’s great with raising polo horses,” he said of Mr. Butler in a 1968 interview with Newsday. “He knows nothing about shows.”

A scene from the original production of “Hair.”Credit…Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Shutterstock

Yet the version Mr. Butler produced ran on Broadway for more than four years and was nominated for the Tony Award for best musical. (The award went to “1776.”) Mr. Butler also established a dozen road companies that performed the show all over North America and overseas. A few times, with one company or another, he even joined the cast members during the nude scene.

“I certainly wouldn’t like to run around nude all the time,” he told The Palm Beach Post in 1972, “but it’s nice to have the freedom to do it if you want to.”

Mr. Butler was born on Nov. 26, 1926, in Chicago. His father, Paul Butler, and his mother, Marjorie von Stresenreuter, were at the center of the social scene in the Chicago area. The family owned 5,800 acres outside the city, land that is now the village of Oak Brook, Ill., and they would host polo tournaments, skeet shoots and fox hunts there.

Mr. Butler attended various schools growing up, including the Culver Military Academy in Indiana, and studied English and history for a time at the University of Colorado before dropping out to spend nine months knocking about in Africa, where, he said, he “drove a station wagon from Cape Town to Khartoum.” He also tried the University of Virginia, where he hoped to pursue architecture — but, as he told The Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, “I got interested in fox hunting, and that was it.”

He went to work for his father helping to run the family businesses, and he showed some aptitude.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy made him a special adviser on the Middle East, where Mr. Butler had been overseeing the family business interests. For a hot minute in the early 1960s, Talisman, a resort community he founded on Fire Island with the record executive Ahmet Ertegun, was the place to be for the chic and well heeled.

He was a partner in various discothèques, among other interests. He also managed the polo club the family had founded at Oak Brook, even getting Prince (now King) Charles to play there in 1986 with a British team.

“Inheritance is a dangerous thing,” he told The Boston Globe in 1979, explaining his ever-expanding lists of interests and investments. “The temptation is to goof off and not struggle.”

His connection to “Hair” defined much of his life.

“I think this is the first public platform for the hippie movement,” he told Newsday in 1968. “It really describes the hippie movement in the hippie way and communicates it to non-hippies.”

The headline on that article was simply “The Hippie Millionaire.” That moniker came easily to journalists who wrote about him, even well past the hippie era.

Mr. Butler in the mid-1950s. “He’s great with raising polo horses,” Joseph Papp, who produced “Hair” at the Public Theater before it moved to Broadway, once said of Mr. Butler. “He knows nothing about shows.”Credit…Jorie Butler Kent

“Playboy” was another word that often turned up in articles about him. He was married three times before he was 40, to Marti Stevens, Robin Boyer and Loyce Stinson Hand; all three marriages ended in divorce. He was linked romantically to an assortment of partners over the years, including, in the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn.

Mr. Butler accumulated a few more Broadway producing credits, most notably on “Lenny,” a 1971 play based on the life of Lenny Bruce that ran for more than a year. He also produced a number of productions of “Hair” over the years in addition to the original road company ones, including a 1977 Broadway revival.

Mr. Butler is survived by a son from his third marriage, Adam; a sister, Jorie Butler Kent; a half sister, Wendy Dunaway; and a grandson.

“Hair,” of course, continues to be performed frequently, and Mr. Butler was said to be working on a new production at his death.

In the early 1990s Mr. Butler declared bankruptcy, blaming soured investments and family infighting over the Butler fortune. In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, he reflected on materialism, his reduced circumstances and the lessons of “Hair.”

“You can’t forget the dreams and the hopes and the thoughts of peace and love that went on in the 1960s,” he said. “They were beautiful things. Something will happen to bring the Age of Aquarius about. I believe that.

“It may be a collective feeling,” he added. “It may be a messiah, although, whenever I say that, I always add that I’m not a candidate for the job.”

Related Articles

Back to top button