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Galt MacDermot, composer of ‘Hair’ and ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ dies at 89

Canadian composer Galt MacDermot in 1968, during a rehearsal for the London production of “Hair.”
Canadian composer Galt MacDermot in 1968, during a rehearsal for the London production of “Hair.” (Larry Ellis/Express via Getty Images)
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Galt MacDermot, a composer who gave the Age of Aquarius its rock-and-roll soundtrack in the Broadway musical “Hair,” wrote the score to a Tony-winning adaptation of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and became a widely sampled staple of 1990s hip-hop, died Dec. 17 at his home on Staten Island, one day before his 90th birthday.

The precise cause was not immediately known, said his daughter Elizabeth MacDermot.

A onetime church organist and choirmaster in Montreal, Mr. MacDermot was perhaps an unlikely choice to compose the music for “Hair,” which opened on Broadway on April 29, 1968 — a date chosen by the producer’s astrologer — and featured hallucinogenic drug use, draft-card burning, frank discussions of homosexuality and an infamous nude sequence at the close of the first act.

Then 39, living in a quiet Staten Island neighborhood with his wife and children, he had received two Grammy Awards as a jazz composer and was a far cry from the production’s lyricists, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who wrote the musical’s book and starred as two of its longhair, tie-dye-clad leads.

Yet drawing from his student years in South Africa, where he fell in love with the rhythmically complex music of artists such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, Mr. MacDermot gave “Hair” a funky, guitar-filled score that made it one of the most successful productions of its era, as well as one of the earliest rock musicals in Broadway history.

“The show is the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today,” wrote New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes, “rather than the day before yesterday.”

Directed by Tom O’Horgan, “Hair” ran for 1,750 performances and raked in tens of millions of dollars, playing in around 20 cities around the world. Its cast album won a Grammy Award in 1968, and the musical was adapted into a 1979 film directed by Milos Forman, revived on Broadway in 2009 and will be broadcast live on NBC next spring.

For many listeners, songs such as “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” became generation-defining anthems, joyous numbers that heralded a new era of peace, love and understanding. A medley of those two tracks was recorded by the 5th Dimension and spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1969; one year later, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers announced that the medley was played more than any other song on U.S. radio and television.

Other “Hair” numbers, recorded by artists including Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Nina Simone and Quincy Jones, were nearly as successful. The musical’s title song, recorded by the Cowsills, rose to No. 2 on the charts; “Good Morning Starshine,” sung by Oliver, hit No. 3 and was performed by Bob McGrath on an episode of “Sesame Street”; and “Easy to Be Hard,” covered by Three Dog Night, reached No. 4.

While the musical was primarily a work of pop-rock, it incorporated elements of jazz and even liturgical music, as in a song called “Sodomy,” in which a character named Woof catalogues his sexual preferences. “I figured that it was kind of a religious experience for that guy,” Mr. MacDermot said, adding that he “wrote it as a hymn.”

He later continued writing rock musicals with productions such as “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which opened in December 1971, ran for 614 performances, and beat out “Grease” and “Follies” to win the Tony Award for best musical.

Produced by Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, it featured lyrics by playwright John Guare, who later wrote “Six Degrees of Separation,” and a book adapted by Guare and director Mel Shapiro from Shakespeare’s comedy. Mr. MacDermot, who received a Drama Desk Award for outstanding music, was nominated for a Tony and Grammy.

But his work ranged far beyond Broadway, stretching into jazz and funk in songs such as the steamy instrumental track “Coffee Cold.”

Mr. MacDermot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009. By then, his music had been rediscovered — and repurposed — by hip-hop artists such as J Dilla, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Nas, LL Cool J, MF Doom and Public Enemy. His song “Space” was a key sample in Busta Rhymes’ hit 1996 single “Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check”; in 1993, Run DMC used the “Hair” song “Where Do I Go?” for “Down With the King.”

“It’s great that my stuff is being picked up by these hip-hoppers, ’cause those guys are allowing rhythm to come back,” Mr. MacDermot told the Village Voice in 2001. “Disco kinda killed rhythm for a while there in the ’70s, and rap brought it back. To me, that’s what music’s all about.”

Arthur Terence Galt MacDermot was born in Montreal on Dec. 18, 1928. His father was a history professor and diplomat who played the piano and served as ambassador to South Africa, Greece, Israel and Australia; his mother was a teacher who also assisted with diplomatic duties.

Mr. MacDermot studied at Upper Canada College, an elite Toronto prep school where his father was principal, and in 1950 received a bachelor’s degree from Bishop’s University in Quebec, taking classes in English and history. He moved to South Africa to join his father, and he received a second degree around 1953, studying organ and composition at the University of Cape Town.

His first hit as a composer was “African Waltz,” which earned him Grammys for best original jazz composition and best instrumental theme after saxophonist Cannonball Adderley recorded it in 1961.

Mr. MacDermot moved to Staten Island three years later, developing a rigorous schedule by which he composed in the morning, working from 7 a.m. until noon, before heading to recording studios in Manhattan to play piano with celebrated backing musicians such as bassist Jimmy Lewis and drummers Idris Muhammad and Bernard Purdie.

He became involved with “Hair” in 1967, after producer and jazz critic Nat Shapiro introduced him to Ragni and Rado; within three weeks, by his account, he had composed music to go with their lyrics. The production premiered at Papp’s nonprofit Public Theater in 1967 and was revised considerably — more than a dozen songs were added, and the plot was all but eliminated — before opening on Broadway.

His other theatrical credits included the music for “Isabel’s a Jezebel,” a West End production based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale; “Who the Murderer Was,” featuring British progressive rock band Curved Air; “Dude,” a country-infused bomb that saw him partner again with Ragni; “Via Galactica,” a sci-fi epic about misfits who live on an asteroid; and “The Human Comedy,” from a coming-of-age novel by William Saroyan.

Mr. MacDermot also wrote the off-Broadway musical revue “Time and the Wind,” and composed the score to movies including “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), considered one of the first blaxploitation films, and “Rhinoceros” (1974), a Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder comedy based on the play by Eugène Ionesco.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, the former Marlene Bruynzeel, a clarinetist; five children; one sister; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

While “Hair” has proved an enduring success, Mr. MacDermot said he was surprised by the controversy it generated upon its release. Two Apollo 13 astronauts made headlines when they walked out after the first act, following a scene in which the American flag is wrapped around an actor.

“I’m from Canada, a small and unimportant country where you can say and do anything and nobody notices,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “I was just very naive about New York theater.”

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly said Mr. MacDermot’s song “Coffee Cold” was used in the 1968 film “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Although some YouTube videos have featured the song as background for the film’s chess scene, the song never appeared in the actual film. The story has been revised.

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