Like the man said, appearances are deceiving, baby. Take the men who made Hair, the wildly successful rock musical which just celebrated it's first birthday at the Biltmore: Gerome Ragni, Hair's co-author and one of it's stars, looks like the title come to life, a mind-blowing Minotaur, East Village, Lower Depths; JAmes Rado, his collaborator and co-star, looks like an intense, slightly-elder-hippie-statesman out of Washington Square by way of the Sheep meadow; Galt MacDermot, who wrote all that driving, jumping, rock music for Hair, looks like the man from John Hancock. You'd buy insurance from him, you'd buy a used car, you'd trust him with your wife. He gets haircuts. And, get this, kids - he's 40!
MacDermot, who lives with his wife and four children in a modest house on a quiet, Norman Rockwell street in ungroovy Staten Island, was in town the other day to answer a few questions - reluctantly, for he is a soft-spoken, modest man - about Then and Now, and How It All Began. "It really was a nervous strain putting that show on." he said, declining a scotch in favor of a Coke. "Not just because of the nudity, but the whole thing - the lack of a real story, the lack of an ordinary book, the endless rock and roll which I didn't know if anyone could take. You know, theatergoers don't really like rock and roll. Also there were a lot of racial things, like that song Colored Spade. A lot of the people in the cast were nervous about that song, how the audience would take it and even how they took it. And the guy who first sang it, Lamont Washington, he didn't know what he thought of it. He had a hard time learning it. He made made that song, put it over, but it was a strain for him, I think, to say all those things, you know, 'colored spade, jungle bunny.....' And now it's just.....nothing."
What about those people who said, in the dear, dead, B.C. (Before Che!), that Hair was a "dirty" show? "Well, I don't understand that, because Ragni's really incapable of obscenity. He can do anything and it doesn't seem obscene, and Rado never does anything like that. Ragni.....he just is; his mind never seems obscene. I suppose somebody who thinks nudity id obscene might think so, but, watching him, I don't."
And the recently resolved, headline-making dispute involving Ragni, Rado, and producer Michael Butler? "Well, I'm not exactly sure what it was about. Jim and Gerry brought certain changes back from the Los Angeles show, where they'd been playing for about six months, and started putting them in the show here. They really weren't doing anything - some new stage business, quite a bit more nudity - but nothing, really....."
Obviously unflappable, Mr. MacDermot and manner goes perfectly with matter (sic). Medium height, brown hair only a touch shaggy, say casual, and graying at the temples; very neat, almost - what's that anachronistic term? Almost Ivy League. And, as far as the ulta-visible phenomenon of Hair goes, he is the invisible man, and all-important contributor to the show's success but, withal, a shadow figure. Why so? "I'm not very interested in publicity. I'm not a performer, really, although I used to do concerts - still do, occasionally, but....." A shrug. It's clear enough. Too public.
MacDermot was born in Montreal, went to school in various Canadian cities, and, more important, lived and studied in South Africa for four years. "My old man was moved out there in 1950. He worked for canada in External Affairs, and the whole family moved to Capetown with him. The country is beautiful, but the politics is pathetic. I could never contemplate staying there, but it was worth living there, even under those conditions, just to get to know some of the Africans. At least it was for me. And especially for the music. I knew some musicians and we'd go out to the African dances just to hear the music.
"They'd be playing what was really, rock and roll. What they called quaylas - like a South African version of High Life - very characteristic beat, very similar to rock. Much deeper, though, much more to it. It's just got a fantastic feel to it. Africans, when they get a beat going, it's just something.
"I loved the music, I'd never heard it before. I was interested in jazz, wanted to be a jazz musician, to write songs - music. I was very serious at that age - I wanted to learn the whole thing, be a composer, serious composer. I took a degree in music at the University of Capetown. I was studying composition and organ - in fact i made a living as an organist in a Baptist church for seven years after i went back to Canada - but I never got interested in 12-tone music or anything like that. Just what caught my ears."
Then Hair owes a debt to Africa? "Everything I write is sort of influenced by that, of course. Hair is very African - a lot of rhythms, not the tunes, so much. Really, rock and roll is sort of African although the beat is basically cha-cha - the accents and the way you feel it makes it different. It's a long time, now, but my feeling for music, what I learned in Africa, I still remember.
Although recordings of Hair's songs are leading all the record sales charts, the music has been put down by people like Leonard Bernstein, who walked out ("the songs are just laundry lists"; by Richard Rogers, who could hear only the beat and dubbed it "one third music", and by Burt Bacharach, composer of Promises, Promises, who thought it didn't even "belong on the same record player" with Richard Rogers' music. What of them? "I don't know why they feel that way." Long Pause. "I guess they just feel that way." End of subject.
MacDermot's interest in rock music led him to Hair. Or, rather, led friends of his to introduce him to Ragni and Rado in january of 1967. Ragni and Rado had written the book and lyrics for Hair, they had a producer in Joseph Papp, who was interested in the show for his New York Shakespeare Festival, but they had no music - until they met MacDermot. "I read it and thought it was good. I don't know if I thought it was funny, but I liked it.....there was just something nice about it. So I wrote fast enough so that in two or three weeks we had enough to take to Papp and play for him. he liked it and said go ahead, and then it was on again, off again." Until the next fall when Hair made it's debut Off Broadway at the New York Shakespeare festival's Public Theater.
So Hair came to MacDermot full blown. Is he, then, a composer who prefers to compose for other people's words? Very much so. "I'm much happier when someone throws me something. That's what gives me ideas. That's why I'm writing this opera - because I had nothing to write when I got back from working with the L.A. cast of Hair.
"This opera" was a reference to MacDermot's new work, Cressida, based on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. You might think it unusual for the man who wrote Hair to be working on an opera, but it's a familiar form to MacDermot, who's written several. "In South Africa, I wrote an opera based on an African folk tale, using African type of music. Then I started to write Joyce Cary's Mr. Johnson into an opera but i didn't have anybody to write the libretto and I got bogged down. I didn't have the theater rights anyway. Then I did another on an H. G. Wells story The Valley of the Blind which I finished. The idea of a whole show sung, or at least motivated by music, appeals to me. because I always get bored when the talk starts."
Then there's not much talk in Cressida? "So far, none. It's mainly the love scenes between Troilus and Cressida. It's a terrible play - I'd never heard of it before joe Papp mentioned it. And it's not like Romeo and Juliet in the sense that it's much more - well, their relationship is more carnal, and Shakespeare's treatment of love and honor and all that is pretty cynical. Papp suggested I do it and construct a sort of libretto from it, using the love story, but what i did was just go through it picking out the juicy poetry, the things that gave me the tunes. Now I have to go back to Joe with what I've done and see if he can make it into a story."
Will Cressida sound like Hair? "Well, no, it's really more like country and western music, like cowboy music a lot of it. A lot of it is rock and roll, but it's more folksy and tuneful - you know, just folk songs...and I haven't cut any of the verse down, because I figure if Shakespeare wrote a thing long, he must have meant it long. And, with Shakespeare, once you get an idea for a tune, it fits. It's almost as if he'd intended it to be sung. Cressida's scheduled for next year sometime, depending on how many problems there are. It's going to be hard to find singers; but actually, if you find talented people, as we did for Hair, it's no problem. I mean, they'll learn it and do it."
Country-western-rock operas aside, what is MacDermot's view of the current state of musical theater? "My main objection to musicals these days is that people have lost faith in music - they don't really believe that music is what people want to hear. I think people really like to hear songs, and in that case you have to forget about the book. To me, Promises, Promises is really a play. My theory is that My Fair Lady and that kind of musical really sent musical comedy in the wrong direction - you can't beat Bernard Shaw, for example - and it made people think you had to have a fantastic book. There's nothing wrong with a book, but if the music doesn't carry a musical, it's just a play with music.
"I don't think all musicals have to be like Hair, but if you can come up with an idea as fantastic as Jim and Gerry's idea, and treat it as genuinely, you'll come up with a successful show. You know, I've always been writing this kind of music, and nobody ever wanted it. I was always made to feel it was the wrong kind of music. After Cressida, I'd like to do another show with Jim and Gerry, if they can ever get themselves out of Hair. I just want to go on writing music."
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