Can you name a rock ‘n roller who’s made music for Broadway and Busta Rhymes? Here’s one: Galt McDermot. The Canadian composer spent his college years in Capetown studying African tribal rhythms before moving to New York City in the 1960’s and eventually writing HAIR
, one of the most revolutionary (and fun) plays ever produced.
As the show gets revived on Broadway this spring, Galt talked about his life with New York Times
reporter Patrick Healy. NYLON
was invited to sit in on their conversation; below are some highlights from Galt’s experiences in ‘60s New York – which might not sound so different from what’s happening right now.You were from Montreal but living in South Africa. How did you get involved in the New York hippie scene?
I came from Montreal, and I’m a jazz fan, or I was a jazz fan then. I met James Rado [the HAIR
lyricist] through Jimmy Lewis [the soul musician from The Drifters] – they wanted Jimmy to produce the play and he said, “Oh no, I’m a jazz musician!” – so James and Jimmy gave me the script for Hair. They didn’t have music yet, just lyrics, and it was terrific lyrics, but I didn’t completely understand the plot. I lived on Staten Island; I didn’t know any hippies! They may have existed in the New York I was living in, but I didn’t know they were there.Did James give you any guidance about the songs?
He said it should be a rock ‘n roll musical and I said, “I like rock ‘n roll, that’s fine with me.” Were you listening to rock music in Canada?
I was trying, but… it didn’t come together until I came to New York and lived there. 1967 was a turning point in American music, from du-wop to rock ‘n roll, it was all on the radio, all the time. The rhythm and feelings of that creative time were unreal. I think the 8th wonder of the world is American music. When I came from Canada to America and I heard rock ‘n roll on the radio every night, it was incredible. How did the play change once you got your hands on it?
Claude didn’t die in Vietnam until we moved to Broadway, and then we knew we need to go more antiwar. We made a decision to make it an antiwar play, because of what was happening in America, and with Vietnam. But the real theme of the play is freedom: Think what you think, and want what you want, and can you say it out loud? And at the time, it was considered a very daring piece of theater.
Was it daring or obnoxious? We don’t know.HAIR has the distinction of becoming the last American stage musical to become the soundtrack to our country. Everyone knows songs like Age of Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In. Did it surprise you to hear your songs being performed by Jefferson Starship?
When my music’s a success, I’m never surprised! But the way the play moves me, when I see it now, that’s a surprise.Do you think with the election of Barack Obama, people still want to see theater that’s about youth and anger?
I don’t think anger has anything to do with it; the appetite is for hope!Get tickets for HAIR here