Skip to main content

The musical Hair on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, on Jan. 3, 1971.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

That countercultural mainstream phenomenon Hair was a real paradox.

Billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” its enduring songs were all written by a tie-wearing Canadian jazz composer, an Upper Canada College-educated son of a diplomat who was nearing 40 when the show premiered on Broadway in 1968.

Galt MacDermot, originally from Montreal, died over the holidays just shy of his 90th birthday. This week, Mirvish Productions is dimming its lights on the Royal Alexandra Theatre marquee for the man who wrote Let the Sunshine In.

It’s an appropriate honour: Hair changed Toronto theatre forever when it opened at the Royal Alex with an all-Canadian cast in late 1969 and ran for 53 weeks, a record that wouldn’t be surpassed until Les Misérables came along two decades later.

Amid the remembrances of Hair’s giant success on Broadway and in the United States – the original cast album full of groovy earworms is still the last to reach No. 1 on the charts – its impact in its composer’s own country was mostly ignored in the wake of MacDermot’s passing.

But the musical provided a crippling blow to Toronto the Good’s morality squad by shifting the goalposts of what was acceptable in the mainstream.

Producer David Mirvish recalls his father, Ed Mirvish, standing at the back of the Royal Alex on opening night with local producer John Bassett and a “whole wall of policemen” deciding whether they were going to arrest them over the show’s references to drugs and sodomy and fellatio – and its famous (but brief) nudity.

“I think in some ways my father was slightly naive – I don’t think marijuana meant very much to him one way or another,” says Mirvish now of his father, the retailer known for Honest Ed’s who got into theatre when he bought the Royal Alex in 1963. “I don’t think that anyone quite knew what would happen.”

While “Honest” Ed Mirvish was not led away in handcuffs that night, it was not out of the realm of possibility.

Indeed, earlier in 1969, Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), in its first show staged outside of radical Rochdale College, and Trio Productions had produced an American play called Futz, about a farmer who falls in love with his prize pig. Everyone involved in that show, put on at Toronto’s Central Library Theatre, was issued with a summons by the morality squad – including the hat-check boy.

In the end, only TPM director Jim Garrard and Trio’s trio of producers (including future Toronto International Film Festival founder Bill Marshall) were actually charged with "staging an immoral performance.” At their first trial in June that year, they were found guilty and fined $1,300.

While that wasn’t an exorbitant amount of money given that Futz had sold out thanks to the media circus surrounding its profanity and nudity, two of Trio’s producers were lawyers and feared being disbarred, so they appealed.

Luck was on their side: Hair opened in Toronto in the lead-up to their return to court.

At their second trial in March, 1970, Futz’s producers had a new defence: If Honest Ed could produce Hair as mainstream entertainment, then how could their show be considered obscene or immoral entertainment outside of community standards?

Believe it or not, this argument was tested in an actual trip to the Royal Alex to groove to songs such as Good Morning Starshine, Easy to Be Hard, Hair and – unlike those, never a Top 10 hit – the faux-hymn Sodomy. (Among MacDermot’s pre-Broadway gigs: church organist and choirmaster at Westmount Baptist Church in Montreal.)

As Denis W. Johnston recounts in his book about the rise of Toronto’s alternative theatres, Up the Mainstream, the defence “invited appeal judge William Lyon to attend a performance of Hair to help him gauge community standards. This he agreed to do only after tickets were also provided for a number of court officials, and for his wife!”

In the end, Justice Lyon was won over by Hair and overturned the earlier guilty verdict. While there were still morality-squad controversies to come – over Toronto Free Theatre’s Clear Light and another TPM show called I Love You Baby Blue – it was the beginning of the end of the policing of theatre in Toronto.

Hair’s other important contribution to Toronto was that it changed how the city’s theatre market was viewed – not just internationally, but at home. According to David Mirvish, it was a “big turning point” in how his father operated his theatre business from his early days hosting other producers' subscription shows.

Broadway producer Michael Butler and Bassett’s Glen-Warren Productions were behind the Toronto production of Hair, and many were skeptical of its prospects, especially given that the producers had the crazy idea of hiring local actors to perform in it.

In the end, Hair boosted the careers of its Canadian cast and demonstrated that there was an audience in Toronto for long-running musicals. The modern incarnation of Mirvish Production started to take shape. “It gave us the courage to try and go on our own,” Mirvish recalls. “My father began to build a subscription.

“What Galt MacDermot did is he opened the door for us.”

It would take a couple more decades for a hit to come along (Les Mis) that could surpass Hair’s record at the Royal Alex. And three more decades for Come from Away to arrive – the first show with music written by a Canadian to play anywhere near as long at the theatre. (That Newfoundland-set musical created by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is such a hit that it’s transferring to the Elgin theatre next month after a year-long run at the Royal Alex.)

There are a lot of reasons for Canadians to remember and celebrate the Tony and Grammy Award winner MacDermot beyond Hair – from his contribution to the early homegrown hit musical satire My Fur Lady (which toured the country and played the Royal Alex in 1957 and 1958) to his significant library of jazz and funk recordings (now managed by Montreal-based Third Side Music), which have been sampled by generations of hip-hop artists.

But we shouldn’t forget that even though his American Tribal Love-Rock Musical premiered in New York, it was an important turning point in Canadian theatre as well.