Dec 17, 2018

I Love Him But It Embarrasses Me

Galt MacDermot.
It doesn't actually embarrass me to love Galt MacDermot, the composer of Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, whose death was just announced--I'm just using this opportunity to express my love for his work by using a lyric from one of my favorite showtunes ever. I had the opportunity to speak to him for my old Back Stage West column, also called the Wicked Stage. Here's the item from June 14, 2001. Wish it were 10 times longer:

I've always had a soft spot for Hair, the "tribal love rock musical" that's younger than I am but not by much. For many it evokes a world they remember firsthand; for folks my age it's a period piece that evokes a world we largely missed--which, through the disarmingly sexy and silly prism of Hair, seems to embody that great line from Sondheim's Follies about a time when "everything was possible/and nothing made sense." I spoke recently with Galt MacDermot, the composer who appears famously on the Hair cast album in a tie and crew-cut next to the show's longhaired writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. He recently helped lead a concert reading for New York's Encores and may do the same for the upcoming Reprise! rendition here in L.A. (opens this weekend at the Wadsworth) featuring Sam Harris, Billy Porter, Steven Weber, and Jennifer Leigh Warren. MacDermot had been toiling in Manhattan as a church organist and jazz pianist when Joe Papp hooked him up with Ragni and Rado, two young actor/writers from the East Village, to do the music for a new musical by, about, and starring members of the free-loving, drug-taking, draft-card-burning counterculture. "They said they wanted to make it a rock 'n' roll show. I was more interested in R&B," said MacDermot, who attributes great influence to a youthful residence in Africa with his diplomat father. What's more, he said, Rado and Ragni's lyrics weren't "typical rock lyrics. They were funny, witty. Most rock songs aren't funny." So is Hair a rock score? Yes and no. It is exuberant, funky, eclectic, occasionally cheesy, but above all it manages to sound both accomplished and innocent. I had to ask MacDermot about Rent, Jonathan Larson's recent through-sung youth-rock hit. He was mixed: "I liked certain moments of it; it didn't kill me." But then, he's not too sanguine on Broadway, anyway: "After a while I realized that theatre isn't where it's at in terms of music. In the New York theatre, their minds are mostly back in the '50s, or back further." He's worked on more modest projects since Hair, but that's fine with McDermot: "I don't want another Hair. One is enough."
My only other published writing about his fine work came a few years back with Time Out NY asked me to contribute to their list of "50 Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I didn't have a part in voting for the list but I was able to choose which songs I got to write about, and I happily snapped up "Aquarius":