'Hair' today
The musical's composer reflects on his unlikely selection.
by Paul Hodgins
The Orange County Register - June 17, 2001


To see the photo that accompanied this article click here.

The publicity shots for the original production of "Hair" paint a curious picture of its creative team.

Authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado look like the kind of guys capable of creating a musical that would capture the turbulent zeitgeist of the '60s: wild, hairy and dressed in the funky, peacock splendor of the era.

But that somber, square-looking guy standing with them - who was he, their father?

"I guess I seemed a little straight to them," said Galt MacDermot, an obscure, 38-year-old composer who shot to fame when "Hair's"
unexpected popularity turned several of his songs ("Aquarius," "Hair," "Easy to Be Hard," "Frank Mills," "Where Do I Go," "Good Morning Starshine," "Let the Sunshine In") into rock classics in 1968. "I wasn't aware of the age difference. I didn't feel old. At that point, I was still young in terms of my career. I thought everything I wrote was the greatest thing ever composed, and I had no conception of what it meant to have a hit show."

"Hair" was more than a hit, of course. It was a phenomenon that marked a turning point in the history of Broadway - its first successful rock musical. The Reprise! production of "Hair" this week at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood is a bit surprising. The bare-bones series is dedicated to staging unjustly neglected musicals, and "Hair" has never really left the public's consciousness (though like all epoch-defining phenomena, it quickly became anachronistic). It even coined the late '60s' defining label: the Age of Aquarius.

You'd think a musical so chockablock full of rock hits would be the product of a talent with one foot in chart-topping pop music, the other in Times Square. But MacDermot had no experience with either demimonde.

"What 'Hair' did was it put me instantly into the business of writing for the theater, which I didn't have any intention of doing at the time," MacDermot said from his New York home. "I never liked Broadway musicals. I liked setting words to music, but my idols were musicians like Duke Ellington. I liked jazz and R&B and old-time rock.

"I really didn't know how to make a living in music. I was just really looking for a way of breaking in - a venue to function in."

MacDermot, a Montreal native, arrived in New York in 1965 with a solid musical education (a bachelor's degree from a respected conservatory in South Africa) and plenty of enthusiasm but no idea how to proceed.

"Times weren't easy. I went to the musicians union and got work playing the piano. That didn't pay much. Then I met some producers who were (recording) demos for publishers. That's really how I learned to write for the orchestration that's in 'Hair.' Everything was for two guitars, bass and drums."

Over the next few years, MacDermot earned a reputation as a gifted
composer and orchestrator, though he was barely able to pay his bills. But
all that changed when an influential pal followed through on a hunch and
 played creative matchmaker.

"I was a friend of (director and author) Mel Shapiro," MacDermot
recalled. "I used to hang out at his place and talk about jazz. One day
(Rado and Ragni) dropped by with this script about some draft dodgers in
the East Village. He said, 'I'll put you together with a good composer.' He
knew other, more famous guys like Michel Legrand, but for some reason
he recommended me."

A problematic blueprint.

MacDermot admits that he was only dimly aware of the burning issues, wild fashions and other elements that defined the hippie subculture of the time.

"I lived on Staten Island then, where I still live. I knew nothing about the East Village (the center of New York's countercultural scene). Rado and Ragni took me around and showed me the neighborhood, but I didn't really learn anything from it."

Nevertheless, MacDermot remembers being impressed by Rado and Ragni's script. But as a blueprint for a musical, it presented some

"I thought it was funny and very fresh. But it was much more of a play (than a musical) when I first read it. The whole thing ended with little tanks running across the stage. The lyrics - half of them weren't even lyrics, they were just speeches. But with a little rewriting they made good songs."

MacDermot's score is notable for its surprising range of pop-music styles - a result, he said, of trying to tailor each song to the member of the multiracial cast who was singing it.

"It all depended on who was singing. 'White Boys,' for example, is an obvious Motown song. A couple (of songs) were country and western. That was great fun."

"Hair" changed MacDermot's life - he devoted his career to composing for musicals - but he never equaled his freshman triumph. "I did dozens of shows over the next 20 years, but only two were what you could call successful." He wrote the music for the Tony-nominated 1971 musical "Two Gentlemen of Verona," based on Shakespeare's play.

MacDermot doesn't sound bitter about never enjoying another hit of "Hair"-y proportions; he admits that the musical made him financially independent. These days, he picks and chooses his commissions carefully, and his projects reflect more modest and personal aims.

"I just (composed) a setting of a prayer by Pope Paul for a neighbor of mine who's doing an album of the pope's prayers. I'm also doing some African music for a documentary - something for the United Nations. I just write whatever comes along."

Still, you get the feeling that MacDermot's days as a composer for the footlights is over. He says he's grown weary of Broadway - and
increasingly picky in his tastes.

"'Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk' was a good idea, but 'Rent' (a musical that many compared to 'Hair') was not as adventurous as it could have been. It's the same idea (as 'Hair') but somehow there was nothing at stake in 'Rent.' I don't want to see a story about afflictions.

"Lately, a lot of hip-hoppers have used my music for their rap records. I like that; it rejuvenates the song. But I don't listen to much (popular music) anymore. Other than Stravinsky, I really don't listen to much that knocks me out. I guess I've heard it all."

Copyright 2001 the Orange County Register.

To return to the Hair Articles index click here.
Or use your Back button to return to where you were.