STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Galt MacDermot Today

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Galt MacDermot Today Thirty years ago this summer, Hair was getting ready to go into rehearsals, and composer Galt MacDermot was a happy man.

Thirty years ago this summer, Hair was getting ready to go into rehearsals, and composer Galt MacDermot was a happy man.

Twenty-nine years ago, Hair was a household-name, international smash, with a Number One album, with three songs -- "Aquarius," "Good Morning, Starshine" and, of course, "Hair" -- riding high on the charts. And Galt MacDermot was of course still a happy man.

Twenty-five years ago, happiness still reigned, what with his Tony winning Best Musical Two Gentlemen of Verona running at capacity. Later that year, though, after Isabel's a Jezabel flopped in London, and Dude, a rustic musical, and Via Galactica, a science fiction tuner, bombed in Broadway, Galt MacDermot was still a happy man.

Why? At a recent dinner with him, the only conclusion I could come to was that he's a guy who just likes to compose. If his songs are extraordinarily well-received, well, that's great, isn't it? And if they aren't, well, wasn't it fun just to write them?

Part of the reason is that MacDermot, the theater's first genuine rock composer, isn't a theater person. He'll be the first to admit it, with no rancor whatsoever. "I like to write theatrical music, so I guess that's the reason I wound up in the theater," he says in his John Wayne-like voice, before adding a shrug. The more cynical among us might assume he's spacey and scattered. Not at all. You'd get the impression that during the drug-laden e60s, the most MacDermot ever took was an Alka-Seltzer. The only thing he probably smoked was the oysters he cooked in his kitchen.

What Galt MacDermot is is -- pretty normal.

He looks like your uncle. Your favorite uncle, the one who always gave you a genial smile. He's pretty mild-mannered, too. For though he was the first man to ever set dozens of four-letter words to music, he didn't use a single one during the interview. Though, to be perfectly honest, he did use a profane seven-letter word, the colloquialism for "rectum," when assessing his Via Galactica director Peter Hall. But that was it.

The father of five -- and now a grandfather a few times over -- is 69 now. Meaning that when he opened Hair, a show that agreed the young generation shouldn't trust anyone over 30, he was already 40.

But he still keeps busy, issuing his own music on his own label called Kilmarnock. "It's a Scottish name my grandfather named our house in Quebec, where I grew up. I've produced about 30 albums," he says -- everything from a pretty serious piece called Ghetto Suite to Reflections of a Radically Right-Wing Composer to an instrumental album of his Via Galactica songs as played by Billy Butler. "He was a musician in the pit," he explains.

While he was at it, did he ever think about issuing a genuine studio cast album of Galactica? "Nah," he says dismissively. "That would have been a whole enother thing." He knows it's not much of an explanation, so he adds, "I enjoy doin' whatever I do, y'know, when I'm doing it. Then when it's over, it's over."

But he did a post-closing album of Dude -- two in fact. "Yeah," he admits, but offers no explanation why he'd do those and not Galactica. Partly because he's reminded of something else: "A guy called me up and asked if he could put out my two eDude' albums as one CD. So I said sure. I haven't got anything from it." A beat. "Maybe I should give him a call."

What must really rankle him, of course, is that Kilmarnock didn't do the multi-platinum Hair, the RCA disc that's been one of the comparative few to be released on LP, 8-track, cassette, and CD, and has never been out of print these last 29 seasons. Not to mention all those Israeli, French, German, Hebrew and Japanese cast albums.

"No," he says, in a matter-of-fact, it-doesn't-matter-much voice. "Then I would have had to get into things like distribution. I make my records for the fun of it." And there's that smile again. "You know, I don't think I've got all of those records. Maybe I do, but I don't think so. I really should, shouldn't I?"

I almost went home and gave him mine.

But he must have had some reaction when director Tom O'Horgan suggested that there be nudity in the show, paving the way for literally hundreds of productions that have embraced the buff look.

He looks as if this is the first time this question has been asked of him. "Well," he says with that broad smile, "I thought that'd be okay."

Not revolutionary. Not astonishing. Not headline-inducing. Just affably okay. Just like MacDermot himself.

Hair happened because "I used to stop by music publisher Nat Shapiro and talk jazz. I love jazz. A lot of years before eHair,' I even got a Grammy when Cannonball Adderly did my song eAfrican Waltz.' Anyway, this Nat Shapiro somehow had a feeling that I'd be good for this show that these two guys he knew were doing."

They were, of course, Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Shapiro's sharp guess made millionaires of them all. "Jim Rado wrote the show instead of taking a big role in a Broadway musical that year. I don't remember which one. I think it was Golden Boy."

No. That was three years earlier -- not long after I saw Rado play (I swear it) George Nowack in a Boston production of She Loves Me in which the then-unknown Jane Alexander was one of the shoppers.

I tell him this. "Oh. Anyway, Jim said, 'This is my year to go crazy,' so he turned the musical down." A beat. "I wrote the score in two weeks," he adds, but without even a bit of braggadocio. He's just relating a fact. He even seems glad that he remembers one.

But you wouldn't get the impression that MacDermot has a particularly bad memory. He just doesn't clutter his head with information that isn't important to him, that's all.

Even when I ask him about Dude producer Adela Holzer, who later went to jail for financial improprieties, he can only say, "She was just a woman. An ordinary woman. Well, with a very thick Spanish accent." Then he remembers, "But my mother, who's a very good judge of character, said 'I don't trust that woman.'"

Isabel's a Jezabel? "What I remember about opening night, many people walked out."

During intermission?

"No, during the first act."

He says this with no sense of embarrassment. Nor does he care to hide the negative fact. It's what happened, so it must be what an interviewer wants to know. And MacDermot is happy to provide any answer he can.

And given that the album of Isabel doesn't tell us anything about the show, what does he remember of that?

"It was about abortion, I remember." He sees I'm waiting for more. "But it was also sort of a variation on that old tale about the woman who keeps wishing for things, y'know?" He purses his lips in hopes that'll do it.

So let's talk about the here and now. MacDermot's latest collaborator is Thomas Hardy. Yes, that Thomas Hardy. "I love his poetry, and I have for years. I've taken a few of his poems (26, actually) and have been setting them to music for a while."

For how long?

"Oh," he says unruffled. "I started them even before I did Hair." Whatever they're old or new, The Thomas Hardy Songs makes for a marvelously mellow Kilmarnock disc. Play it late at night, when the assaulting sounds of Lorelei or Golden Rainbow just won't do.

Can we look for him to musicalize a Thomas Hardy novel? "No," he immediately says. "I love his poetry, but I don't like his stories. They're too depressing."

And will The Thomas Hardy Stories become a theater piece? "I think it could be a revue. But it's such an effort to get things produced."

Doesn't his name still carry some weight somewhere? "No." No rancor. "I wouldn't say so. Would you?"

It's not a confrontational question. He just asking to see if he's mistaken.

"Actually, I don't even go to the theater much. Well, I have a few friends who are Tony voters, and they sometimes invite me to go along with them. So I saw Titanic, which I kind of liked, and The Life, which I didn't, and Play On. I really liked the music and the performances."

Soon he's on his way back home, to Staten Island, where he's lived ever since he finished up school in Capetown, even after Hair made him rich. "I like Staten Island," he says, "because there aren't any snobs there."

I bet they like him there, too.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com