Galt MacDermot, who composed the hit Broadway musicals Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, died Monday, a day before his 90th birthday. His death was confirmed to Playbill by his granddaughter, though a cause of death was not revealed.
After cutting records in the early part of the Sixties, including the Grammy-winning “African Waltz” for saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, the Montreal-born composer moved to New York. Upon meeting lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado, he began setting their writings to music and the trio eventually created Hair, which opened off-Broadway in 1967 and moved to the Great White Way the next year. He paired the duo’s cosmic ruminations on the Age of Aquarius with a soulful rocking groove and provided scratchy rock guitars to “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).” The song was released in 1969 by The Fifth Dimension as part of a medley with “Age of Aquarius,” quickly establishing the song as an anthem for the hippie generation.
With a plot that questioned the Vietnam War, the production was a timely smash and earned two Tony nominations and won the Grammy for Best Score From an Original Cast Show Album. The show has been revived several times and won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for its 2009 Broadway revival; a 1979 film version by Milos Forman featured choreography by Twyla Tharp.
“[Hair] succeeds in catching up the audience in the rhythm of the experience, if not in actual awareness of what is going on,” Rolling Stone wrote in 1968. “It is topical, treating contemporary youth or some of them, which is at least a welcome switch from the Broadway preoccupation with middle-age trauma.”
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In 1971, MacDermot scored another hit with the rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, based on the Shakespeare comedy of the same name with lyrics by John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation). It won two Tonys in 1972, beating out Grease and Follies for Best Musical.
MacDermot was born December 18th, 1928 in Montreal and received his bachelor’s degree in music from South Africa’s Cape Town University. In addition to his two biggest works, he set music to the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales (Isabel’s a Jezebel), space travel (Via Galactica) and America in the 1940s (The Human Comedy). He also wrote the off-Broadway revue Time and the Wind.
MacDermot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009 and received the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
MacDermot’s music, both from his stage productions and non-Broadway albums, had an immense impact on hip-hop. Samples of “Space,” from his Woman Is Sweeter soundtrack, have appeared in tracks by Snoop Dogg, Faith Evans and Busta Rhymes (“Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check”); his solo recording “Coffee Cold” features in recordings by Gang Starr and Handsome Boy Modeling School; and “Golden Apples – Part II” was used in music by J Dilla and Obie Trice. Additionally, Madlib, MF Doom, Run-DMC and Public Enemy, among many others, have all sampled his music in their recordings.
Questlove paid his respects on Instagram. “The Broadway community is mourning his passing this morning (#Hair will love forever) but best believe he was the hip hop community’s too,” he wrote. “It fed Nineties hip hop something crazy!”
Hair will make its network television debut this coming spring in an NBC broadcast, which will be shot in front of a live audience.
“When you say you want a rock ‘n’ roll show, you’re talking about two hours of music,” MacDermot once said, according to Playbill. “It can’t all be the same. You’ve got to get different styles. I never counted them, but I like to think they’re all a little different. ‘Aquarius’ has a bit of a West India feel. I was trying to make it spacey — like outer-spacey — and got too spacey. Jim said, ‘The kids’ll never sing a song like that.’ I agreed. It was the only song I rewrote.”
Galt MacDermot – “Space”
Galt MacDermot – “Coffee Cold”
Galt MacDermot – “Ripped Open by Metal Explosion”