My Love Affair with “Hair” (R.I.P. Galt MacDermot)

Well, this post is happening before I would have preferred. I was planning to do something on my favorite musicals (including Hair) for Broadway week in January..and I undoubtedly would have done something next year for the 50th anniversary of the original Broadway cast album and the hit singles of 1969…but now here we are. Composer Galt MacDermot has passed away at the age of 89.

Which means that that he was around 40 when he was working on the music for Hair…a VERY advanced age to be working on a rock project in those days, perhaps even unprecedented at the time. But he did have a track record with jazz. He’d won a Grammy in 1960 for a tune called “African Waltz” so he proved the right person to bridge the cultural gap between “musical theatre music” and what the kids were listening to, helping to invent the rock musical in the process.

Author Todd S. Jenkins sheds some light on McDermot’s first success as a composer:

“MacDermot’s first real brush with fame was pretty unusual. He studied African musical forms in the 1950s, and he composed a jazz tune called ‘African Waltz’. Somehow or another, British bandleader John Dankworth found out about the tune and recorded it in 1961. It hit #9 on the British charts that year, and was so popular that American saxophonist Cannonball Adderley asked Dankworth if he could record the piece in almost exactly the same arrangement. He did so, and it became one of the most popular releases in Adderley’s catalog. Few things speak to the universality of jazz than an African-inspired tune written by a Canadian and turned into a hit by Brits and Americans.”

I wore the grooves out on my original cast album of Hair. It was incalculably influential on me.  The show seems central in terms of the mythologizing and romanticizing of the counterculture, through its depiction of hippies, Vietnam draft dodgers, societal rebellion, changing sexual and racial relations, and life on the streets of the bohemian East Village in the 1960s. Director Tom O’Horgan came from La MaMa. Co-writer Jerome Ragni had been with the Open Theatre and performed in the play Viet Rock. Hair was the first contemporary show ever to premiere at the Public Theatre. A lot of the significance of those things was lost on me as a kid, although those names and places would matter a great deal to me later. At the time, I just knew that I loved the music. At least four of its songs, all released as singles in 1969, were staples of AM radio when I was a kid: “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (which is actually a medley of two of the songs) by the 5th Dimension, “Hair” (the show’s title song) by The Cowsills, “Good Morning, Starshine” by a chap named Oliver, and”Easy to be Hard” by Three Dog Night. They all were not just Top Ten hits, but Top Five Hits in 1969 (#1, #2, #3 and #4 respectively — just worked out that way).

My awareness of the show greatly increased when the 1979 Milos Forman film version came out. (Though I’ve never been too crazy about the film or its soundtrack. I vastly prefer the Broadway cast album, and can tell from reading the script and accounts of the theatrical production that I would have loved the original theatrical version much better.) I was at an impressionable age in 1979, and the media was full of tenth anniversary memorializing of the sixties, Woodstock and so forth. The now forgotten More American Graffiti  came out that year as well, and I enjoyed that and really loved the soundtrack. I spent a lot of my early teens obsessing about the sixties and bemoaning that none of this ferment was happening in my own time. And though it had increasingly nothing to do with my own generation I played the Hair soundtrack a lot and wished that I had been born a decade earlier. The world was still unjust — why weren’t young people still in the streets protesting? But then, come to think of it, I was only doing the very same thing the other kids were doing — listening to records in my bedroom.

Hair is without a doubt one of the musicals I know best — I go down the song list this morning and can conjure the lyrics and tunes in my head to almost all of them with little effort. (It’s been decades now since I spent any time listening to it, otherwise I’d be able to recall all of them!) MacDermot’s tunes really helped sell this amazing show, and brought it to the wider world, where it would influence people far outside the geographic confines of the East Village, like me.

MacDermot was responsible for much more than Hair, it should be noted. He won a Tony for his 1971 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. I caught the revival at the Public back in 2005 and enjoyed it heartily. He also did movie soundtracks for such films as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), and Rhinoceros (1974).

Like all obits, this post has been turned out in a haste unworthy of its subject. I may add to it and fill it out as time goes on. Meantime, thanks, Galt MacDermot, for the many happy hours wrought by your music.