Interview with Galt MacDermot
One of my favorite interviews that I conducted while working on a story about Wagner College Theatre’s world premiere of the musical ‘Goddess Wheel,’ for the summer issue of ‘Wagner Magazine,’ was with the show’s composer, Galt MacDermot.
MacDermot has won two Grammys (for “African Waltz” in 1960 and the cast album of his groundbreaking hit musical Hair in 1969) and a Tony Award for Best Musical (for Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1971). I introduced myself to the tall, lanky 83-year-old at the opening night of Goddess Wheel and told him I’d like an interview. “Sure,” he said. “Just look me up in the phone book.”
Back in the office the next morning, I dug out my old copy of the Staten Island phone book and found his number. A few days later, I rode my bike over to his house, a scant mile away from campus — a grand old brick home across from Silver Lake Park. Receiving me in a large, light-filled room with a fireplace, baby grand piano, and shelves of books about music and musicians, he told it had been built by a prominent Staten Island family; but before he moved in, 40 years ago, it had been used as a school.
It was fun interviewing him because he was so informal and down-to-earth. I asked him how he got involved with the Goddess Wheel project, which is based on the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata. Matty Selman, who wrote the Goddess Wheel book and lyrics, told me he had asked Galt to join him in writing songs for a Robert Brustein production of Lysistrata at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, but “Galt wasn’t really into it.” Galt denied it. “No, I was keen. I’m always interested in writing music. … Not now, because I’m old and I don’t want to be bothered, but it used to be that if anyone asked me to write a musical, I would do it.”
But maybe Matty’s story is accurate — Galt often admitted during the interview that there were things he didn’t know or didn’t remember. Matty’s story is that he told Galt, “I wrote this lyric, and here it is anyway.” Galt called two days later and said, “Why did you write this? This is very good. I have to write music to it.” Galt said to me, “I like Matty’s lyrics. They’re clever and they’re not familiar. … He seemed to know the subject, which I didn’t. I had only heard of Aristophanes.” He told me he had only recently read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and was impressed with it — although he didn’t find it funny.
Goddess Wheel, on the other hand, he found hilarious and very entertaining. He gave much credit to the “comic genius” of its director, Rusty Curcio, who also serves as head of Wagner’s dance program. “It’s a good show. It’s not often that you put on a good show. I think Rusty has a good sense of the absurd, which is perfect for this.”
How did he decide on the style of music to write for this show? “Well, I have my own style,” he said. “The lyrics really dictated the style of the song. But I like rhythm, I like musical rhythm. So that’s what I wrote. When I see the lyrics, I just hear it. And then I figure, well, what’s the rhythm of it. And then concentrate on those two things, the melody and the rhythm. And then later orchestrate it and stuff. So it was really just the same old thing.”
I asked him about the message of the show — Matty Selman had told me he wanted it to have an empowering message, especially for young women. “Really. I didn’t know that,” said Galt. “Yeah, well, the first thing you notice with any kind of show is, ‘Am I being entertained? Do I like this?’ And that’s what I was noticing, that I really was enjoying the show. … If you can inspire them [the audience] at all, move them with either the music or the theatricality of it. That’s really all you try to do, and it may have side effects.”
Those thoughts led him into some memories from his childhood. When he was about 10 years old, he told me, he saw the movie Syncopation in Toronto. “It was about boogie-woogie, and jazz, and it was an eye-opener, because I didn’t know about all that stuff. I played the violin, and my father played the piano, but this was brand-new. When I heard this boogie-woogie, I said, ‘This is a serious subject!’
“So why did I bring that up?” he continued. “Well, it inspires you! … At that moment, I didn’t say ‘I’m going to become a musician,’ but I think that’s when I decided to become a musician, because it was so thrilling!”
But, he modestly noted, it wasn’t like he was instantly transformed. “It was a slow thing,” he said. “You hear it, and it knocks you out, and then you go out and play football.” Then he went on to reminisce about listening to Oscar Peterson, the famous jazz pianist, play during recess during his high school years in Montreal.
It was a pleasure to interview Galt MacDermot, and I hope you’ll go on to read my story (in the summer 2012 issue of Wagner Magazine) about the newest musical by this legendary figure, Goddess Wheel, premiered by Wagner College Theatre in April 2012. Photo above, Galt MacDermot surrounded by fans at the Goddess Wheel premiere, by Karen O’Donnell.
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine
Photo by Karen O’Donnell