Everyone warned Michael Butler against taking the hippie musical, Hair, uptown to Broadway. None of the theaters wanted it. But Butler had sunk so much money into it already, transferring it once from its original home in the village, that he had to go on.
The result: the one hit musical of the Broadway season. A show like this makes Hello Dolly! and Mame look like the end of the line; the current How Now Dow Jones looks like nowhere.
Let me give you some idea of what goes on at the Biltmore, even on matinees.
The stage is fashionably bleak, bare, undecorated. In the corner, the orchestra is seated on an old truck. The tattered actors creep on-stage as if taking a trip underwater. But soon they start swinging, writhing, bouncing, mocking, carrying placards about.
"Hell no, we won't go," "Consult your local freak." Forbidden words are pronounced to show they are meaningless. A song strings initials together: LBJ-IRT-USA-LSD-FBI-CIO (sic). Cards are burned. A draft officer sits in judgment: "I'll tell him I'm a faggot and I'll go to Toronto" says one kid. "I want to be over here doing the things they're defending my right to do over there," says another.
A grey-haired visitor arrives on stage to sympathize with them. The boy's fashions are explained in anthropological terms. "Thank you, Margaret Mead," they chant to this bit of condescension. The lady visitor turns out to be a stringy boy wearing only shorts under his fur coat.
We have a movie scene: everybody breathless while a couple demonstrates the utter banality of movie dialogue and acting. Everything is a send-up. The U.S. flag is folded with a reverence that is patently satirical.
While James Rado sings Where Do I Go On A Darkening Stage? (sic), the rest of the cast crawls under a floral cloth. Some of them can be seen stripping. For a finale of the first act, they stand up nude in the dim light. But this well publicized scene is also a take-off on all the people who would be shocked if you just took off your clothes and stood there. These kids do it. So what? Who's shocked by that old bit?
The second act of Hair doesn't pursue the nudity business. There's too much else to tilt at. White girls sing of the charm of black boys, and black girls of white. A young man delivers an ecstatic pean (sic) of Mick Jagger. There's a beautiful, slow pot-smoking session that leads into the central figure hallucinating about war. At the end George Washington is shown and in uniform. The cast walks away from him, leaving him prone on a black cloth. Has he just cut the hippie scene or is he dead?
Galt MacDermot didn't have the answer when I met him afterwards for tea and cake. He's the composer of Hair's amazing eloquent score and directs its orchestra, but he doesn't know what the ending signifies.
"We work independently," he explains, referring to Rado and Gerome Ragni, who did the book and lyrics. "I don't take part in the creative process. I prefer it that way. They hand me the material. I set it to music."
He can, and does, set lists of names to music, supplying his own melody but he prefers sense in his lyrics. For this viewer, the peak of Hair was MacDermot's setting of Shakespeare's sonnet: What a Piece of Work Is Man, sung by Walter Harris and Ronnie Grant (sic). At this moment, the frenzy stops and old words and new music soar effortlessly heaven-wards. It's MacDermot's favorite moment too, and an indication of his range, and his promise for future work.
"I want to write an opera next. Joseph Papp (who originally commissioned Hair) wants one. The music would be rock, but more varied.
"Rock 'n' Roll is still my favorite kind of music. It is the popular kind of music of the day. Old type swing and Broadway music is finished. Nothing else goes. There has been a new beat for the last five years.
"Jazz has no significance now," he says regretfully but flatly. "All these Nineteen Thirties and Forties rhythms have expired now. Nothing inventive is happening. There's nothing as good today as jazz was, Nothing as serious. I guess it was an era of talent - same as in Shakespeare's day. Some of the new music is interesting but just interesting. More entertainment than music."
MacDermot wrote four songs for the famous McGill musical, My Fur Lady. He worked with James Domville, Tim Porteous and Donald McSween on it but he actually went to Bishop's University, studying only music at McGill conservatory.
He started in music in Capetown, when his father, the late T.W.L. MacDermot, was posted there as Canadian High Commissioner. Former headmaster of Upper Canada College, "Terry" MacDermot was Canada's ambassador to Greece and Israel, and high commissioner to South Africa and Australia. But he was no square, says his son Galt.
"Thanks to his attitude, I could go into music without being afraid that it wasn't the thing to do."
After My Fur Lady, Galt wrote a rock setting for a straight production of The Tempest for McSween, then went off to England. He had a hit song there, African Waltz, in 1961. Back here he has worked mostly for recordings. This is his first musical, but it already has quite a history.
Hair, the American Tribal Folk-Rock (sic) Musical, when Joseph Papp produced it, had a good reception although the kids didn't dig it as much as the 40-year-olds. Michael Butler bought it from Papp and took it to Cheetah. It didn't really work there but Butler pushed on to Broadway. He'd liked Tom O'Horgan's work at the cafe LaMama (O'Horgan directed Tom Paine), took him on as director, and never interfered with his highly inventive work.
O'Horgan discarded the plot of Hair - it is purely residual now, haunting the stage like a forgotten ghost. The love story hadn't worked, requiring too much reality in a show which prefers satire. (Men can die and go to hell, but not for real.)
The cast up-town is mostly new. Only Rado, Lynn Kellog (sic) and Sally Eaton are left from the original group. (Editors note: Lynn Kellogg was new to the show for the Broadway production, and not a hold over from the "original group" as written here. In addition, Rado and Sally Eaton were not the only original off-Broadway cast members who moved with the show to Broadway.) They are now all playing actors playing people. Not people themselves. They are also infinitely more musical now, MacDermot reports. The show is much more what it was intended to be originally.
"It's not satire. Satire's boring to me. Doesn't go to music. These kids don't dig wit; they like humor. Wit is showing off how clever you are. Everything in the show is a fact. The first Be-In had kids stripping to baffle the cops, for example."
Ragni and Rado are working on another musical, about Indians and U.S. history. They have sent material to MacDermot and he has already written some songs. And they are all three to work on the movie Hair. That should be interesting, too. A no-plot, hippie nudie - straight from its Broadway success to you!
Copyright Canadian Composer Magazine.