Galt MacDermot, Composer of Broadway's 'Hair,' Dies at 89

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Galt MacDermot

The Grammy winner also penned the score for the Tony-winning musical 'Two Gentlemen of Verona.'

Galt MacDermot, the composer best known for penning the scores for the Broadway hits Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, died Monday, his granddaughter confirmed to Playbill. A cause of death was not disclosed. He was 89.

MacDermot's career kicked off in the early 1960s when he won two Grammys for his composition "African Waltz." He made a name for himself on the Great White Way two years later when he wrote the music for the landmark counterculture smash Hair, and also composed the score for Broadway's Two Gentlemen of Verona, based on the Shakespeare comedy, which nabbed the Tony for best musical in 1972, beating out Grease and Stephen Sondheim's Follies.

Years down the road, MacDermot's music found new life in the hip-hop community, with artists from Busta Rhymes to Run-D.M.C. sampling his work. Not long after news of MacDermot's death broke on Monday, musician Questlove took to Twitter to pay tribute. "King Galt," he wrote. "The Broadway community is mourning his passing this morning... but best believe he was the hip-hop community’s too."

Featuring a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, Hair rode the wave of the sexual revolution, drug experimentation, anti-establishment rebellion and Vietnam War protests, generating a number of mainstream radio hits, including "Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In," "Good Morning Starshine," "Easy to Be Hard" and the title song. MacDermot's score remains notable for its eclectic range of styles and influences.

Subtitled An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, Hair was initially turned down by most Broadway backers until influential producer Joe Papp stepped in to premiere the musical downtown at the Public Theater in 1967. A Broadway transfer followed in 1968 and ran for 1,750 performances, becoming a massive cultural phenomenon. The show shook up conservative theatergoers with its graphic language and full-frontal nudity, while injecting a more contemporary spirit into Broadway and creating a new mold for rock musicals.

Milos Forman made a film version released in 1979, starring Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D'Angelo, which drew a tepid response at the time but has gone on to become something of a cult success. A Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park production transferred to Broadway in 2009 and ran for more than a year, winning a Tony Award for best revival of a musical.

Again teaming with writer-lyricist Ragni, MacDermot wrote the score for the 1972 rock musical Dude (The Highway Life), an allegory of good and evil told through the journey of an Everyman who loses his innocence and strives to regain it. But the production was plagued with problems through rehearsals and previews, opening to disastrous reviews and closing after just 16 performances. The show has the distinction of having its poster featured on the famous "Flop Wall" at popular theater-district restaurant Joe Allen.

MacDermot worked with different collaborators on other shows that played both on Broadway and off, including Isabel's a Jezebel, Via Galactica, The Human Comedy and Time and the Wind, but unsurprisingly, none would ever come close to the success or cultural impact of Hair.

He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2010, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada honored him with a lifetime achievement award.  

Back in May, NBC announced that Hair would be revived for a live television broadcast set to air in spring 2019. Network chairman Robert Greenblatt said at the time, "I’m overjoyed that James Rado and Galt MacDermot are trusting us with their masterpiece Hair, one of the most original shows ever conceived for Broadway with one of the greatest scores."