“There is no number in Hair that stands out in my memory.”
Richard Watt, New York Post (30/4/68)
“…melody-less numbers that pass for songs…endlessly repeated primitive musical phrases.”
“I have mixed feelings about Hair but only admiration for Galt MacDermot’s score…(although) it is conceivable that it could mystify audiences 10 years from now.”
Edith Oliver, The New Yorker (11/11/67)
“For this viewer, the peak of Hair was MacDermot’s setting of Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘What A Piece of Work Is A Man’. At this moment the frenzy stops and old words and new music soar effortlessly heavenwards.”
Herbert Whittaker, Canadian Composer (1968)
Was it really just over 5o years ago that the musical, Hair, made its controversial premiere on Broadway? Having seen the show myself on the Rialto (a standing room ticket was under five dollars in 1968), I’m stunned to think the time has passed so quickly!
Educators in the field of cultural studies, popular culture and musicology have all had their take on Hair. But one question seems to keep coming back around; who was this mild mannered Canadian who wrote all of those rocking tunes?
Galt MacDermot, who passed away a year ago today, December 17th, is a study in intersectionality. Many of the numerous obituaries written for him, (he died at the age of 90) made mention of his race, sex, class, age and gender in postulating how he was an odd choice for the job that led to his greatest success. To tick off the requisite boxes, MacDermot’s “oddness” was derived from the fact that he was:
— a 4o year old white male, with a short, conservative haircut who preferred composing jazz over rock and would often come to production meetings and rehearsals wearing a shirt and tie along with sensible shoes.
— abstemious in his personal habits, he didn’t drink alcohol or smoke marijuana.
— a person who preferred spending quality time with his wife and kids rather than late night gigs or after show partying.
Writing in American Theatre magazine, the playwright, John Guare, who penned the lyrics for MacDermot’s Tony award winning musical, Two Gentleman of Verona, said that John Lennon once invited him to a party but he passed in order to get back to his Staten Island home in time for dinner.
His obit in The New York Times referred to him as “an unlikely figure as (Hair’s) composer” because of his “clean living and short hair.” The Globe and Mail called his selection “a paradox” and Britain’s The Guardian noted “he was an unlikely composer of hippy anthems, ballads protesting against the Vietnam war, and the scatalogical sex hymns of Hair (1967) ”.
Was Galt MacDermot really a walking contradiction in terms when Gerome Ragni and James Rado tapped him for the job of putting music to their rambunctious, unruly lyrics that included a whopping 30 songs – surely a first for a Broadway musical? Don Rubin, professor emeritus of drama at York University, interviewed MacDermot in 1970 for the CBC in London, England. He asked him how many songs were in the show originally.
“There were maybe twenty written originally. When we opened the first preview on Broadway, I think there were somewhere near forty. We took out a lot during the previews which went on for three weeks”, he said.
In 1968, the year Hair opened on Broadway, critics of the day were mixed when they wrote about this cleverly arranged and fast-paced pastiche of rock, blues and classical composing that made up the score. Some just didn’t quite know what to make of the music and the lyrics which, as the French now say in retrospect of the 60s decade, was “très soixante-huit”.
New York Post critic Richard Watt (30/4/68) complained, “There is no number in Hair that stands out in my memory.”
The trade magazine, Variety (1/5/68), called MacDermot’s music “…melody-less numbers that pass for songs” with “endlessly repeated primitive musical phrases.”
The conservative columnist, William F. Buckley, predictably panned the show in The National Review but had to admit that, “the music and the action are engagingly energetic”, while an ambivalent Edith Oliver writing in the New Yorker (11/11/67) observed, “I have mixed feelings about Hair but only admiration for Galt MacDermot’s score.” Although she continued to muse: “…it is conceivable that it could mystify audiences 10 years from now.”
Writing in the New York Times (4/30/68) Clive Barnes said, “Galt MacDermot’s music is merely pop-rock, with strong, soothing overtones of Broadway melody, but it precisely serves it’s purpose, and it’s noisy and cheerful conservatism is just right for an audience that might wince at Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, while the Stones would certainly gather no pop moss.”
Barnes seemed to step back from that notion a few months later when he opined in the Saturday Evening Post (10/8/1968), “Galt MacDermot’s music is an adroit mixture of raga-rock (middle Beatles period) with enough Broadway schmaltz to appeal to people who like the Sound of Music as well as the sound of music.”
But it was the venerable Canadian theatre critic, Herbert Whittaker, who intuited the breadth of MacDermot’s talent when he met with him for an interview (over tea and cake!) after a performance in the spring of 1968. Writing in Canadian Composer, Whittaker noted, “For this viewer, the peak of Hair was MacDermot’s setting of Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘What a Piece of Work Is A Man.’ At this moment the frenzy stops and old words and new music soar effortlessly heavenwards.”
Born in Montreal and educated at Upper Canada College, Bishop’s University and South African College of Music (now the University of Cape Town), MacDermot had a privileged upbringing. In an interview with the New York Times (11/05/69), he was asked how it was that he came to live in South Africa. “My old man was moved out there in 1950. He worked for canada (sic) in External Affairs, and the whole family moved to Cape Town with him.”
The “old man” would be Terrence William Leighton MacDermot, a distinguished World War I veteran who went on to work in Canadian foreign service as a diplomat and an academic whose postings included acting as Canada’s ambassador to Greece and Israel as well as High Commissioner to South Africa and Australia. The move to Cape Town would be life altering for the twenty-two year old pipe organist who was already aspiring to become a composer and wanted to study music in South Africa, even after finishing a B.A. at Bishop’s University in Quebec.
According to Professor James May, retired head of the music department at South African College of Music, MacDermot did achieve a degree there but he did not “make a specialist study of African music” as reported in his Wikipedia entry and subsequently picked up by various press reports at the time of his death. “There were no formalized majors in either jazz or African music at that time,” said Professor May. “His degree (1951-1953) was a 3 year bachelor of music degree rooted firmly in the Western classical tradition.”
His academic transcript from SACM (provided by Professor May from his archives) is revealing. Although he played the pipe organ as his main instrument, music majors generally must demonstrate high proficiency with a second instrument – MacDermot’s was viola. On the organ, his transcript indicates that during his first year of study, he was graded on two Bach pieces, Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Chorale Prelude in B flat (Ach bleib bei uns). Although the first piece is more technically difficult than the second, both compositions are built upon big, ringing anthemic chords. His recital also included Chorale in A minor by the French composer, César Franck, another hugely theatrical piece.
His lowest grade was in a history of music class (sitting in the middle of an African country and having to study a series of dead, white, male European composers might have seemed a bit boring to young Galt). But his highest grades – straight A’s in music composition and orchestration – were a clear indication of his direction as a musician. In addition, he was awarded the Emdin Prize for composition.
Playing viola in the orchestra for the SACM opera season is what may have steered MacDermot toward an interest in stage performance. Under the influence of the Scottish composer and conductor, Erik Chisholm, who was then head of the music department and founder of the opera program, G.M. played regularly in programs that included Menotti’s The Medium and The Telephone, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and Chisholm’s own composition, Dark Sonnet, among others. It was also during this period that MacDermot met his future wife, Marlene Brunyzeel, a clarinetist of Dutch descent.
Some of Erik Chisholm’s social conscience might also have rubbed off on his student. Chisholm was a conscientious objector during World War II but he served in the National Services Entertainment Association where he ended up as musical director for the South East Asia Command. After coming into conflict with his superiors because he insisted on a multi-racial orchestra in India, he was removed to Singapore. While there, he formed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra by recruiting a number of ex-prisoners of war which included the noted musician, Szymon Goldberg, who had secreted his Stradivarius violin up a chimney for three and a half years before being liberated from the prison camp.
According to his Wikipedia entry, “Chisholm did not support the South African policy of apartheid and had socialist leanings. Chisholm convinced Ronald Stevenson, a fellow Scot, to perform at University of Capetown (sic). During a performance of Stevenson’s Passacaglia, the program made references to Lenin’s slogan of peace, bread and land as well as a salute to the “emergent Africa”. The following day, South African police searched Chisholm’s study in a failed attempt to link him with working for the USSR.”
Curricular and extra-curricular might be the best way to sum up MacDermot’s time studying at the South African College of Music. In the day, he dutifully studied the Western classical tradition. But at night he hung out in the integrated jazz clubs and shebeens of Cape Town, where the dogs of the apartheid regime were still being held somewhat at bay. Artists like Miriam Makeba were already making names for themselves while Hugh Masekela was just beginning to learn how to play the trumpet. Visiting musicians from Ghana would play their High Life riffs filling the clubs and streets with the intricate rhythms and chord progressions called quaylas.
While living in South Africa, McDermott developed his musical skills as well as his personal sense of racial equality. Continuing to speak with Herbert Whittaker, he referred to the South African government as “pretty pathetic.” When he had an opportunity to integrate his own pit orchestra for Hair, he didn’t hesitate hiring Idris Muhammad on drums and former Count Basie orchestra bass player, Jimmy Lewis. He also hired Margaret Rosezarian Harris to conduct while MacDermot himself stayed on keyboard. Harris, a graduate of Julliard, became the first black woman ever to hold that position in a Broadway musical orchestra.
Writing in Ebony magazine (May 1970) author Ellen H. King recognized the impact of Hair on African Americans working in the theatre. Said King: “The biggest theatrical success of modern times (first year gross some $18 million) and unquestionably the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of American theatre is Hair, a free-for-all musical about peace, pot, freedom, and love. An outgrowth of the youth revolt which, in turn was triggered by the Black Revolution, Hair represents a break with stage tradition in that it is theatre for, by and about the young…Certainly 150 or more blacks are playing the show in six U.S. cities and 14 foreign countries and new Hair productions continue to pop up all over the world.”
Upon returning to Montreal from South Africa, MacDermot worked for several years as the organist at the Westmount Baptist church. In 1957 he worked on the iconic Canadian musical, My Fur Lady, which was originally staged as a student production at McGill University. But he soon became restless and by January, 1960, had reached out once again to his friend and mentor, Erik Chisholm, soliciting a support letter for a Canada Council educational grant. He wanted to “get away from dance and church music” for awhile and take an additional course in composition at McGill.
Chishom responded quickly: “I sent off a letter to the Canada Council with a strong recommendation for mercy. I hope you pull it off.” Galt was successful in obtaining the grant, and it provided the 32 year old, now a family man with a new baby, the creative space he needed to compose “African Waltz”, which was recorded the following year by the English band leader, Johnny Dankworth. Surprisingly, “African Waltz” hit the bull’s eye by making its way to No. 9 on the U.K. Singles Chart. Shortly thereafter it was covered by jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderly who won a Grammy Award for his album of the same name.
Buoyed by this new found momentum, MacDermot summoned his courage and moved to New York where he used “African Waltz” as his calling card while knocking on doors in what he referred to with proper Canadian politeness as, “the music business.” A few years later he met the jazz writer and record producer, Nat Shapiro who introduced him to Gerome Ragni and James Rado who asked him to get busy composing music for a “tribal love-rock musical” they were working on named Hair.
Although Galt MacDermot was not born under the astrological sign of Aquarius, his arrival and departure from this earth does carry with it some interesting astrological observations. He was born under the sign of Sagittarius on December 18, 1928. He died ninety years later, almost to the day, on December 17, 2018, just shy of the winter solstice when the earth’s axis tilts away from the sun, but traditionally a time of celebration that includes singing and dancing with rituals to leave behind the bad vibes of the passing year and welcome in the new. All very popular festivities with the hippies of the 1960s.
There is no question that the stars aligned perfectly for Galt MacDermot when he was asked to compose the music for Hair. Few composers have seen that many breakout tunes from one score enter the international repertory of popular song. The “peace and love” musical, Hair, will forever call for the dawning of a new age and a brighter future for all the inhabitants of our fraught and troubled planet. And the, “unlikely” and “mild mannered” Canadian composer, named Galt MacDermot, turned out to be just the perfect person for the job!