Margaret Harris (1943 – 2000) is slightly better remembered for her work as a conductor than her contemporary, Joyce Brown. She had a long association with the musical Hair and conducted over 800 performances, on Broadway and as MD for its national tours .
There’s much more to Harris’s career, and retracing newspaper coverage of her work reveals interviews with her, and the prospect of several Broadway shows she was never credited for. Footage of Harris conducting and playing the piano has also been found, and shared here for the first time.
‘Music is to move, to entertain. All I care about is that music be good, and that it communicate with a broad public, without special introductions or apologies. All those barriers between pop and classical are snobbish, artificial.’ (Harris in Bernheimer, 1972)
Margaret Harris made her piano debut in Chicago, aged only 3, with her mother on the side of the stage. The concert was reported internationally, one Scottish newspaper reported she played Brahms, Bach, Schubert, and Tschaikowsky (Dundee Evening Telegraph, September 8 1947, p. 3)
Shortly afterwards, and unsurprisingly given the coverage her concert received, ‘someone offered my folks $13,000 to get me to play the piano on television. The funny thing was that they knew I could have done it. But they turned it down. This girl had more important things to do. Like go to school.’ (in Bernheimer 1972)
Margaret performed again publicly as a child, when aged only 10 she played with the Chicago Symphony orchestra. She performed the first movement of Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto. Aged 12, she trained at the Curtis Institute in New York, living with her mother who had moved there to look after, leaving her father behind in Chicago. The family suffered separation as well as incredible financial hardship: We lived on breadcrumbs – it’s no B.S. story. We’d put hot water on them and make pudding. Or cereal all week. But we wanted something, had a dream.” (in Winer, 1971)
She gained a scholarship to pursue her studies further at Julliard, where she studied for both her undergraduate and postgraduate music degrees, where she studied under Isabella Vengerova who also trained Leonard Bernstein. She did not just want to seek training in piano, and took conducting courses, explaining ‘I needed to know if the oboe was a transposing instrument, or what the orchestra was really doing while I was playing my part in a concerto.’ (Winer 1971)
In 1967, she was originally booked as the pianist for Donald MacKaye’s production of Black New World, a dance show. The production played both the Edinburgh Festival and a residency in London’s West End, before moving to 10 further European countries. She was only 23. Harris returned to London again as a conductor of 1969 with the musical Song of the Lusitania Bogey, produced by the Negro Ensemble Theatre. The production had a short run at the Aldwych Theatre.
She continued working for the Negro Ensemble Theatre, as Music Director for Joseph A Walker’s The Harangues at St Marks’ Playhouse in 1969. From there, she moved to Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of the musical Sambo (music by Ron Stewart and Neal Tate). That production toured parks and outdoor spaces across the New York boroughs across different communities. She was invited in to Hair as a potential conductor, but she was reluctant after seeing the radical nature of the production:
‘You’re supposed to have musicians right in front of you when you’re conducting. And I was intimidated because it was Broadway and the young generation and a hit show and totally different from anything I’d done. I felt like I’d been hit by a gold-plated mallet. I didn’t know it was gold plated. It just hurt. I called them up and said ‘I can’t do this’. They told me to come back again and see what I think’ (Ithaca Journal, 1971)
She decided to try a two week cover period, working with the all male band, all of whom older than she was. She described her original reluctance: ‘I worked evenings with Sambo. Then I took over. My first day conducting and playing piano I had a substitute drummer who didn’t know the show. He was looking at me for tempos. I thought, if I can do this, I can do anything. Since her first performance on Aug 10 1970, Miss Harris has become musical director of all the Hair productions in the United States and flies to any that has a musical problem.’ (Campbell, 1971)
She gave her piano concerto at the Town Hall, New York in 1970. Because she was working concurrently in Hair – still a shocking musical even after it had been open on Broadway for two years – there was widespread coverage of her concert.
The fact Harris had composed two separate pieces of music for her recital received widespread attention. It was also reported Harris was writing her own musical, but it is difficult to know whether any of the music exists, at one point she said it was a rock musical called Toy Girl (Demarko, 1970)
She spoke frankly about the financial reality of pursuing a career in classical music, and while she described concert piano as her first love other musical forms enabled her ‘to earn my living doing what I love and still continue working on my career as a concert pianist’ (in Cook, 1970)
After her Town Hall concert she was quickly hired to conduct the Chicago Symphony for a young people’s concert as an audition. She was successful and hired to conduct an evening performance at Grant Park. Several photos capture the event in 1971. In 1972, her Piano Concerto No. 2 received its premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Isaiah Jackson (then music director of the Youth Symphony of New York). She played solo piano in the concert.
She formed Overland Talent Association in 1972, ‘formed with the intention of helping new talent and bringing music and theatre to young Black audiences’ with Leon H Gildin. That article notes she was co-musical director with Harold Wheeler for Promises Promises (1968) and worked on Coco (1969), though she has no ‘official’ credits for either piece. (Backstage, January 5 1973, p. 16) Whether through acting as cover or replacement on shows, these discrepancies with other accounts demonstrate how Black women musicians’ careers can be easily minimised.
Newspaper coverage and interviews with Harris often reveal attitudes which still impact women in music, about how it is possible to balance professional careers with relationships or children. Harris gave generous answers to these repeated questions:
I love all music and all aspects of it. And quite possibly through music I could find love. But if music is going to be the total thing in my life, then it’s the total thing. I could not give it up, so it will take a special kind of man to understand that. My mother prayed when she had me that I would be a missionary. In a way I guess I am. Music is heart to heart, soul to soul. (in Smith, 1974)
She went on to work as MD for the national tour of Raisin in 1975. From that point, coverage of her musical activities becomes more difficult, especially from the later 1980s and 1990s. She was one of the founder members of two Black opera companies, Opera/South and National Opera Ebony, and became the general director of the latter company. She continued to be involved with the company for some time.
In 1989 she conducted orchestra concerts on radio performances, newspaper reports note her giving free concerts in Florida in 1990, and in Chicago for the South Side Family Chamber Orchestra in 1993. In 1995 she advised on the Uzbek premiere of Porgy and Bess, travelling to Tashken to do so.
She died in 2000, aged only 56.