Galt MacDermot, who composed the score for Hair, the tribal rock musical that shocked mainstream theatregoers as it celebrated the drug-crazed, free-love, antiwar rebellious energy of hippies in the 1960s, died on Monday at his home in Staten Island, New York. He was 89.
His daughter Molly MacDermot confirmed the death.
In 1968, when Hair opened on Broadway, Montreal-born Galt MacDermot cut an unlikely figure as its composer. His hair was short, he wore a shirt and tie, he didn’t smoke marijuana or drink alcohol, and he was approaching 40 – putting him on the far side of the generation gap.
John Lennon once invited him to a party, Molly MacDermot said, but he didn’t go, preferring to head home to Staten Island, where he was raising his family.
“I never even heard of a hippie,” Mr. MacDermot told Playbill when he was asked to score Hair, whose book and lyrics had been written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni.
And yet, Mr. Rado said in a telephone interview, “He was coming up with this incredibly funky music with this original rhythm and blues sound.”
Hair became a cultural phenomenon and went on to win the Grammy for best score from an original cast show album.
“Utilizing every element of modern popular music,” the liner notes on the original Broadway cast recording said, “composer Galt MacDermot’s superb ‘Hair’ pieces reflect the sounds and rhythms emanating from New Orleans, Nashville, Liverpool, Memphis and New Delhi. The pulse is wired to today.”
Mr. MacDermot was a versatile composer and accomplished pianist who played everything from jazz to liturgical music. He had another Broadway hit with the music for Two Gentlemen of Verona, which won the Tony for best musical in 1972 (with lyrics by John Guare), beating out Grease and Follies.
His music, with its multiethnic influences, became a staple of hip-hop sampling. Numerous artists have repurposed his work, including Busta Rhymes, Run-D.M.C. and MF Doom, and several pay homage to him in a video called Lookin4Galt.
Mr. MacDermot also composed soundtracks for movies, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), and worked with the noted drummer Bernard Purdie.
“King Galt,” the musician Questlove wrote on Twitter on Monday. “The Broadway community is mourning his passing,” he said, “but best believe he was the hip-hop community’s too. It fed Nineties hip-hop something crazy!”
Mr. MacDermot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, and, in 2010, he earned the lifetime achievement award from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada.
His best-known work remains Hair, with the songs Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In and Easy to Be Hard topping the pop music charts and becoming counterculture anthems.
Hair is set to make its live television debut this spring on NBC. Mr. Rado said that in response to past criticism that the show was sexist, he had been tinkering with the script to give the female characters more prominence.
Mr. Rado and Mr. Ragni, both actors, spent several years writing the script for Hair, which is set in Manhattan’s East Village against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, then had trouble finding a producer. Joseph Papp agreed to put it on as his inaugural production at the Public Theater. But the authors had to find a composer.
The script was sent initially to the pianist Herbie Hancock. But Mr. Hancock took too many liberties, Mr. Rado said, cutting several lyrics, so they looked for another composer.
Eventually a friend of a friend put them in touch with Mr. MacDermot, a pianist who had won two Grammys for the 1961 instrumental piece African Waltz (best original jazz composition and best instrumental theme or instrumental version of a song), recorded by Cannonball Adderly. Mr. MacDermot had just moved to New York, and within a couple of weeks he was receiving the lyrics for Hair and sending back a few songs.
“We loved what we heard,” Mr. Rado said. “The music fit like a glove. Galt set the words down exactly as they were on paper. We were very happy for someone not to be editing our stuff.”
The only song he had to rewrite was Aquarius. Mr. MacDermot himself said his first version was too “spacey.”
Mr. Ragni died in 1991.
Eric Grode, author of Hair: The Story of the Show that Defined a Generation (2010), said in a phone interview that one reason Mr. MacDermot’s score worked so well was its flexibility. The production was often “loosey goosey,” he said, with some actors not coming onstage on cue; Mr. MacDermot’s score allowed for their unpredictability.
“The music was designed to be elastic so you could play a riff an extra three or four times to give people backstage time to figure out what they were doing,” Mr. Grode said.
The show opened at the Public in 1967, went through an extensive rewrite and moved to the now defunct Cheetah nightclub before transferring to the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in April 1968, directed by Tom O’Horgan. It opened in the West End of London that September and closed on Broadway in July, 1972.
Four Broadway revivals have been staged since, most recently in 2011. And still, the audience storms the stage and dances with the cast during the curtain call, a tradition begun in 1968.
With its frontal nudity and liberal use of four-letter words, Hair shocked many audiences. It also upset some of the theatre’s old guard, who felt threatened as rock was displacing show tunes on the Billboard charts.
And Hair definitely offered a new sound.
It was “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday,” the critic Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times. Mr. MacDermot’s music, Mr. Barnes added, had “strong soothing overtones of Broadway melody, but it precisely serves its purpose.”
The score was somewhat overshadowed by the explicit language in songs such as Hashish and Sodomy, and by actions on stage, such as the turning of the American flag upside down, a scene that prompted two astronauts in the audience to walk out.
“From the old guard’s perspective, Galt’s contribution to ‘Hair’ was probably the least objectionable part of the show,” Mr. Grode said.
“In a way, Galt was the grown-up in the room,” he said. “Without his rigour and craftsmanship, there would never have been a musical accomplished enough to make it to Broadway and get under everyone’s skin in the first place.”
Arthur Terence Galt MacDermot was born on Dec. 18, 1928, in Montreal. His father, Terence MacDermot, taught history at McGill University, was principal at Upper Canada College and later served as Canada’s ambassador to Greece and Israel, and high commissioner to South Africa and Australia. Galt’s mother, Lella Elizabeth (Savage) MacDermot, was a homemaker.
Mr. MacDermot moved around a lot as a child, but music was a constant preoccupation. Encouraged by his piano-playing father, Terence, Mr. MacDermot began experimenting on the recorder at the age of five and became proficient on violin as a teenager. While attending Toronto’s Upper Canada College, where his dad was the headmaster during the 1940s, Mr. MacDermot fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. “I’d never heard anything like that in my life and I became a fanatic,” he told an interviewer. “I picked up the piano because all I wanted to play was boogie woogie.”
After graduating with a BA in history and English from Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., Mr. MacDermot moved to Cape Town when his father became the Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa. It proved another musical turning point for the 21-year-old pianist, as he discovered the township sounds of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. The young Mr. MacDermot enrolled in Cape Town University’s music program and studied African music, which became another lifelong passion.
He began his musical career in the 1950s as the organist-choirmaster at Montreal’s Westmount Baptist Church. At the time, Mr. MacDermot also moonlighted in nightclubs around his hometown – “crashing about on the piano, turning church hymns into jazz,” as one of his relatives, the writer Janet Savage Blachford, once recalled. By 1957, he had composed music for My Fur Lady, a satirical musical about Canada’s national identity crisis that became a huge success. Working with Timothy Porteous, a future Pierre Trudeau executive assistant and Canada Council director, Mr. MacDermot composed songs for the production, which started out at McGill University before moving on to the Stratford Festival and a national tour. The cast recording came out on Montreal’s Laurentian Records – the same label that released Mr. MacDermot’s first album, Art Gallery Jazz.
Singer Allan Nicholls, former frontman for the Montreal pop band J.B. & the Playboys, auditioned for Hair in New York in 1969 and landed the lead roles of Berger and, later, Claude. He later also co-starred with Salome Bey in MacDermot’s not-so-successful 1972 musical Dude, and sang in Mr. MacDermot’s religious works Mass in F and Take This Bread, which opened Hamilton Place in 1973. “Galt was a genius when it came to melody and an incredibly soulful guy,” Mr. Nicholls recalls. “There was no one quite like him.”
Mr. MacDermot leaves his wife, Marlene; a sister, Anne McDougall; a son, Vincent; and, in addition to his daughter Molly, three other daughters, Yolanda and Sarah MacDermot and Elizabeth MacDermot Murphy; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. MacDermot had a disciplined schedule at home, his children said, getting up and going straight to the piano, either his baby grand Steinway or an upright Yamaha.
“When ideas weren’t coming to him, he would play classical music,” Vincent MacDermot said in a telephone interview. “That kept him limber. He wouldn’t sit in a chair and think about it. His dialogue was with the piano.”
With a file from Nicholas Jennings, special to The Globe and Mail