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MacDermot, (Arthur Terence) Galt

MacDERMOT, (Arthur Terence) Galt

(b. 18 December 1928 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada), composer, church organist/choirmaster, and pianist who wrote the score for the innovative 1967 rock musical Hair, which achieved the fourth-longest run of any 1960s musical.

MacDermot was the son of Terence W. L. MacDermot, an educator and diplomat, and Elizabeth Savage MacDermot, a homemaker. MacDermot was the middle child; he had two sisters. As a boy he played violin and piano, and as a teenager he discovered boogie-woogie and jazz and became a fan of Pete Johnson, Duke Ellington, and Meade Lux Lewis. As a youngster MacDermot was schooled throughout Canada wherever his father was a principal. He attended kindergarten at Montreal High School, and then attended the next eight years at Upper Canada College, Toronto. At twelve years of age, he attended the University of Toronto for one year; returned to Montreal High School for two more years; entered Lisgar Collegiate, Ottawa, for two years, and received his high school diploma there in 1948. He attended Bishop's University, Quebec, and received a B.A. in history and English in 1950.

MacDermot then moved with his family to South Africa, where he earned a B.A. in music composition and organ at the University of Cape Town in 1953. He was inspired by the rich musical sounds he heard in the black African urban ghettos. In a 1969 New York Times interview, he said, "They'd be playing what was really rock and roll. What they called quaylas—like a South African version of High Life—… you don't hear it anywhere else." While in South Africa, MacDermot began writing operas.

In 1954 MacDermot married Marlene Bruynzeel, a clarinetist of Dutch descent, and the couple returned to Montreal; they later had four daughters and a son. From 1954 to 1961 he worked for the Westmount Baptist Church as an organist and choirmaster. He also played piano with a jazz trio. In 1961 MacDermot moved his family to England, where his jazz composition "African Waltz" (recorded by Johnny Dankworth) had become a best-seller. When it was released in the United States on Riverside, MacDermot won two Grammy Awards for best jazz composer of the year and best instrumental theme. He played piano in London for two-and-one-half years, and then moved to the United States. MacDermot became an American citizen in August 1994.

MacDermot rented a house on Staten Island, New York, and later purchased a modest home there after Hair's success. For several years he supported his family by making demonstration records for music publishers, but his goal was to write a stage show. In 1967 he had that opportunity when the music publisher Nat Shapiro introduced him to Gerome Ragni and James Rado, two actors who had written a book and lyrics for a musical. They were in search of someone to write the score. MacDermot applied his skills, and Hair was born.

Hair (described in playbills as the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical") reflects the hippie culture of the 1960s. Thematically it is an antiestablishment protest, set amid a celebrated life of psychedelic drugs and uninhibited sexuality. It exhibits the free lifestyle of assorted Greenwich Village hippies, portraying a world of social dropouts. They reject materialistic culture, oppose the draft, and hate the war in Vietnam. Hair satirizes racism, sexual repression, and other societal problems. The play's original posters depicted a male wearing long hair, protesting parental values, hence the title of the musical.

Hair opened on 17 October 1967, presented by Joseph Papp and directed by Gerald Freedman, at the off-Broadway New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater. The intention was that Hair would run for a limited engagement of eight weeks, with ninety-four performances. Not willing to let his off-Broadway hit expire, Papp (with Michael Butler) moved Hair to Cheetah, a large discotheque. That version was the same as the original in direction, design, and casting. Hair moved to the Biltmore Theatre on 29 April 1968 with a new director, Tom O'Horgan, and MacDermot as the music director. The play closed in December, completing 1,742 performances. It achieved a breakthrough by having the cast totally nude at the first-act finale. Hair was a milestone in Broadway musical history, playing to approximately four million people in the first two years and eventually grossing $80 million.

The critic Stanley Richards said of Hair, "It shattered Broadway's conventions." Clive Barnes of the New York Times described it as "so likable, so new, so fresh and so unassuming, even in its pretensions. It is the first Broadway musical … to have the authentic voice of today rather than … yesterday." Others were offended. The composer Leonard Bernstein walked out on the show, saying, "The songs are just laundry lists." Richard Rodgers, who could hear only the beat, described it as "one-third music."

At one time, seven road companies were performing Hair throughout the United States. The musical was performed worldwide; it produced eleven original cast record albums in as many languages. Hair was a unique rock musical. Forty others opened after 1967, but none had the same appeal as Hair. As one Broadway observer said, "I loved Hair, I thought it was marvelous, but there was only one Hair. You don't create that kind of thing a second time." The original Broadway cast recording of Hair (on RCA Victor) won a Grammy for the best long-play recording of 1968.

In 1969 the critic Robert Berkvist described MacDermot as "Almost Ivy League.… You'd buy insurance from him, you'd buy a used car, you'd trust him with your wife. He gets haircuts. And get this, kids—he's 40." In fact, when MacDermot was first exposed to the script for Hair, he claimed to be unaware of the hippie culture. Some of the subject matter bothered MacDermot when the play was first performed. He was concerned about audience reaction to racial comments, especially to the song "Colored Spade." Overall, MacDermot was pleased with Hair. He said, "I liked the lyrics, and I thought the play was funny." MacDermot, the man behind the scenes, said, "I'm not very interested in publicity."

MacDermot continued to write musical scores. He received the Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards for the score of Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1971, and was named by both Drama Desk and Variety Poll as the year's outstanding theater composer. Following the success of Hair, MacDermot wrote more than a dozen other stage and film productions and produced an impressive folio of oratorios and sacred music. The composer said it best: "I just want to go on writing music."

For a biographical sketch of MacDermot, see Durrell Bowman, contrib., The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada (1992). Abe Laufe, Broadway's Greatest Musicals: 1977 Revised Edition (1969), discusses audience reaction to Hair; Stanley Green, Encyclopedia of the Musical Theater (1976), gives facts about the play; Stanley Richards, Great Rock Musicals (1979), provides its entire script. Barbara Lee Horn, The Age of Hair (1991), covers the origins of the hippie movement and its transformation in the 1970s. Kurt Ganzl, The Encyclopedia of Musical Theater (1994), explains the evolution of Hair; and Kurt Ganzl, Ganzl's Book of the Broadway Musical (1995), describes acts one and two of the play. Helpful articles on MacDermot's work include "From Hair to Hamlet," New Republic (18 Nov. 1967); "He Put 'Hair' on Broadway's Chest," New York Times (11 May 1969); and "Galt MacDermot Offers New Music with a Pulse," New York Times (8 May 1981).

Sandra Redmond Peters

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