CULTURE & THE ARTS:
Levine's L&L Does Loesser
AUFBAU 62:3 Feb. 2, 1996 p13
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
January 26, 1996
After a quarter-century, starting its 26th season with four sold-out performances January 21-22, Maurice Levine's "Lyrics and Lyricists" series (a.k.a. "L&L") at the 92nd Street Y finally got around to the songs of lyricistcomposer Frank Loesser (1910-1969). To be fair, individual works of Loesser's had been featured before, including Guys & Dolls in a show hosted by its original cast star Vivian Blaine. But this was the first full portrait devoted entirely to the man and his work - as designer of words, music, and (even) furniture(!).
Kitty Carlisle Hart hosted, as she had earlier shows on the Gershwins and Cole Porter, with very special guest Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer's widow, whose radiant soprano has been and still is a joy to hear over the past four decades. Discovered by Marc Blitzstein to play Polly Peachum in Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys, Ms. Sullivan became Loesser's young wife both in his Most Happy Fella and in real life during his final years. A "vigilant keeper of the flame," she later starred in a number of works by and about her husband, including Perfectly Frank, I Hear Music... of Frank Loesser and Friends, and, with their daughter Emily, Together Again for the First Time.
Her latest project will bring to Broadway a stage version she produced in London of the Danny Kaye movie with a score by Loesser: Hans Christian Andersen. One of the Y program's highlights was a song from that show, "Inchworm," sung as a duet by Mrs. Loesser and the amazing Mrs. Hart (at 84 still a joy to hear sing!), preceded by a duonarration of how Moss Hart had been instrumental in getting Frank Loesser hired to work with him on that film.
The program was filled with tidbits and gems from both Broadway and Hollywood, sung and danced by a cast of 8, in which L&L regular Jeanette Palmer proved to be the most energetic, especially in a Betty Hutton number from the 1947 film The Perils of Pauline about the frustrations of living on a floor below a musician. Film clips included the young Dennis King and Jack Benny in a goofy Westerns send-up, Marlene Dietrich in "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" from Destry Rides Again (lyrics by Loesser, music by Friedrich nder), and (in Red, Hot and Blue) Betty Hutton with Loesser himself in the role of a gangster pressuring her to "sing," in two senses of the term.
The show opened with "Heart and Soul" (lyrics by Loesser, music by Hoagy Carmichael), progressing through Loesser's first song with his own music - inspired by a chaplain at Pearl Harbor in 1941: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition... and we'll all stay free!" Employing various rhymes like "perdition," "mission," etc., it prompted one wag to remark in rhythm when the song was reprised (together with "Heart and Soul") as a sing-along closing the first half: "Now a 15-minute intermission... we can all go pee!"
The second half progressed from the 1948 Where's Charley through Guys & Dolls, Hans Christian Andersen, Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed (1961), regrettably omitting the lovely Greenwillow and what many consider Loesser's greatest song, "My Time of Day" from Guys & Dolls, not to mention the classic love duet which follows it, "I've Never Been in Love Before." Guys & Dolls' other duet, "I'll Know," was refashioned by Jo as a solo for herself and was, once again, another highlight of the program.
Other L&L shows at the Y this season, music-directed by Barry Levitt with "additional staging" by Pamela Sousa, will feature works by Leonard Bernstein (with whom Maurice Levine studied conducting at Tanglewood) and, of course, Kurt Weill, who chose Maurice Levine to conduct the premiere of his Lost in the Stars, which became Weill's last complete work at his premature death in 1950. Maestro Levine later collaborated with Weill's widow Lotte Lenya on a number of albums, as well as conducting the premieres of Kismet, Flahooley, Carmelina, and revivals of Music in the Air, archy & mehitabel, and Of Thee I Sing. Having worked at the Y since 1947, Levine was musical director of Israel Bond Festivals 1958-71 and of the Metropolitan Synagogue (where I had the honor of substitute conducting for him several times in 1979) into the 1980s.
I asked him and his assistant, Debby Unger, if future programs might include more Friedrich Hollaender or Marc Blitzstein, and received an equivocal answer: "We always have to worry about: 'Are there enough "White Christmas"es to please the audience?'" - i.e. "the recognition factor." Still, one would think that with the new director of the Y's Tisch Center for the Arts, Michael Barrett, who got his start conducting a revival of Blitzstein's
Cradle Will Rock in the 1980s (as did this writer in the 1960s), there might be some positive pressure for such a program.... Meanwhile, on to the second quarter-century for Lyrics & Lyricists!
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