BWW Interview: Ben West Previews Unsung Musicals' Carolyn Leigh Tribute Concert
"Those fingers in my hair, that sly come-hither stare that strips my conscience bare, it's witchcraft," "The best is yet to come and won't that be fine," "Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you're young a heart..." These are the Carolyn Leigh lyrics everybody knows. On Saturday night, Leigh's less-familiar words will be heard in a concert produced by Unsung Musicals, the five-year-old company dedicated to resurrecting "obscure but artistically sound" musicals.
Presented as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook program, the April 5 Unsung Carolyn Leigh concert stars Erin Davie, Max von Essen, Alli Mauzey, Adam Kantor, Autumn Hurlbert, Jeremy Kushnier, Teal Wicks, Donna Bullock, Rachel de Benedet and Drew Gehling.
As the lyricist of the Broadway musicals Peter Pan, Little Me, Wildcat and How Now, Dow Jones, Leigh is responsible for such beloved showtunes as "I Won't Grow Up," "Tender Shepherd," "I've Got Your Number," "Real Live Girl" and "Hey Look Me Over." She also penned many pop songs and wrote the original score for Smile with Marvin Hamlisch--which was rewritten by Hamlisch and Howard Ashman by the time the ill-fated show opened on Broadway in 1986, three years after Leigh's death at age 57. A native New Yorker, Leigh has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Unsung Musicals has showcased her work in the past. The company made its debut with a revival of How Now, Dow Jones--which has music by Elmer Bernstein--at the 2009 New York Fringe Festival. In 2011 it presented a concert of the score from Gatsby, an unproduced musical based on The Great Gatsby that Leigh wrote with Lee Pockriss, and reconstituted her and Morton Gould's mid-'70s unproduced Juliet score as a song cycle called Nothing Is Forever. Last November, Unsung Musicals featured another unproduced Leigh/Pockriss show, Caesar's Wife, in a benefit concert.
Other shows the company has done in either concerts or fully staged productions include The Fig Leaves Are Falling by Allan Sherman and Albert Hague (which ran for four performances in 1969); Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's At Home Abroad (1935-36); and Bless You All!, a 1950 revue scored by Harold Rome. It returned to the Fringe Festival in 2010 with Platinum, which starred Alexis Smith in its monthlong original Broadway production in 1978.
Unsung Musicals is creating a brand-new revue, The Passing Show, to be presented June 26-29 at the MTC Creative Center on West 43rd St. It will include sketches by Bruce Vilanch and new songs from Sam Carner and Derek Gregor, Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham, Rick Hip-Flores, Phoebe Kreutz, Sam Salmond and [title of show]'s Jeff Bowen, along with a few trunk songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. The company also conducts a developmental reading series, in conjunction with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. According to company founder and artistic director Ben West, the readings generally involve shows that were never licensed, revived or toured.
A onetime performer, West won a FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award for directing How Now, Dow Jones. BroadwayWorld sat down with him to learn more about the Unsung Carolyn Leigh concert and how he's brought his personal passion to the stage.
Why Carolyn Leigh?
She's my favorite. I think she's extraordinary--brilliant and witty, a superb craftsman. Her use of language is superb, and her style is completely unique. Cole Porter was very dexterous in his writing, and Lorenz Hart, and Stephen Sondheim, but there's something about her and the way she assembles her thoughts and conveys ideas is just all her own. There's a sophistication about it, a very sly, sexy sensibility. She wrote four complete scores that were never produced. One of them, Caesar's Wife, has the feel and sound of brassy Carolyn Leigh, with '60s and Latin flavors. It's in a similar vein to the Carolyn Leigh that most people know of the late '50s and '60s. Her work with Marvin Hamlisch on Smile is similar. Then there's Gatsby and Juliet, which are very different from her other work. Gatsby is a rich, '20s Jazz Age sound, and some of the darker numbers are very haunting and intense. Juliet--based on Fellini's film Juliet of the Spirits, transplanted from Italy to New Orleans--was with Morton Gould, who was much better known in the classical world, so the sound is very different.
Will her famous songs be in the concert, too?
Yes. There's a sequence that we do called "Broadway rejects," which will incorporate some of the standards. In the late '50s she began writing with Cy Coleman, and they had auditioned for a couple of Broadway projects and were rejected, and those songs were recycled and became part of their pop catalog. So there'll definitely be that. And "Young at Heart" we'll hear, of course, which is what really made her a household name.
Was her career at all stymied because she was a woman in a male-dominated field?
I don't think so, because from the '50s she was constantly working. Post-1968, not really much was produced, apart from revivals, but from the material that I've seen, she was even more active then. Given the output and the amount of projects for which she was hired, I don't think it affected her. When she was working with Cy Coleman, they were supposed to do Dream Girl, they were supposed to do a separate musical called Skyscraper [based on Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl, Skyscraper was ultimately written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and produced on Broadway in 1965-66, starring Julie Harris as the Walter Mitty-esque heroine]. They were announced to do this project called The King of Ashtabula, with Gore Vidal. She was announced to do Roman Holiday with Richard Adler. And she had television projects on top of that.
I think the common perception about what affected her career trajectory was her being difficult, which is always talked about. It's very clear she had her difficult moments. There's a story about her hauling a cop off the street in Philadelphia to arrest Bob Fosse and Cy Feuer when they tried to cut a number from Little Me. I feel like there's more to the story than that. There is a personal letter that she wrote in 1956 explaining her withdrawal from a television project--it's four or five pages long. She's very young at that point, and she acknowledges that fact. She's like, "I have a lot to learn, I have a long way to go to become the lyricist I want to be." She was so smart and such a perfectionist, I think, and really expected the most from herself and her collaborators. I think her zeal and her pursuit of that caused friction. I don't think she was just difficult to be difficult. You look at her songs, and they're so particular, everything is so placed--in a good way.
What was the genesis of Unsung Musicals?
I have a great passion for more traditional, classic musical comedies of what is considered the golden age. I do a lot of research and archival work, and in my research I found myself gravitating toward this particular style of show, and in doing so I discovered there are so many that are not done regularly but are great. So certainly that is the focus: trying to find those pieces that are well crafted and hold up and trying to revitalize them and look at them in a new way for a contemporary audience--and, hopefully, reintroduce them to the canon.
So they're not necessarily shows that were "flops," but just ones that have been forgotten over time?
That's correct. For example, the first full production we did was Make Mine Manhattan, which in 1948 was a big splashy Broadway revue and a huge hit. It ran one week under a year, it went on tour with Bert Lahr. It was a certifiable hit, but it simply has never been done since. There tend to be trends, I've found, in the shows we look at. In some cases they were never produced, but Make Mine Manhattan, the authors--who are fabulous--never really became household names, so they tend not to be investigated. Or the show itself is a revue, and the traditional revue has really died out. We did a reading in December of Are You With It?, a 1945 show that very few people know, but it actually got some of the best reviews I have ever read. Literally, the first paragraph of the New York Times is "Run and get your tickets. Oh, no, wait, you don't have to run; it's going to be here for a long time." And it was there for 200 performances!
Is all your research done at the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center?
A lot of it is there. It's a tremendous resource, and I thrilled to be associated with it. Also a lot in D.C., at the Library of Congress. Those are the two main places. I've been to the Schubert Archive a couple of times. And it gets...weird from there. Composer Sidney Littman, for example, went to University of Minnesota, so his papers went to Minnesota. Elmer Bernstein is USC, Harold Rome is at Yale...
You're probably tired of being compared to City Center's Encores!, but was that a model for Unsung Musicals?
I think it differs from Encores! in a few ways. One, I think we dig much deeper in the canon in terms of obscurity and name recognition. And then also in terms of the way that we treat the projects. I'm very passionate about treating all of our projects as new musicals--which is to say, we adapt when needed, or it becomes a collaboration of sorts with the authors. I'll go back to Make Mine Manhattan: The authors initially conceived it as an eight-person pocket revue; what it became was a huge, splashy spectacle. What we did is bring it back to what it was initially conceived as, with two pianos. My understanding of Encores! is that it's strict in terms of maintaining the material's structure as it was. And then, of course, budget. And intimacy: We're looking at projects that are physically on a smaller scale.
Have you come across anything in these old musicals that's untenable for today's audiences?
Yes. Are You With It?, the reading we did in December, is set in a carnival. It's very zany, bubbly, fun. Really well written, too. The book leaves a lot of room for character in terms of what the actors bring to it, and the lyrics are very smart. However, there was a stereotypical African-American character who was basically the maid of the carnival, and her lover was abusive, and they had this number called "Poor Little Me." That had to go. It wasn't sardonic enough to be funny, but to do it seriously would be [cringing], oh, my god, because the lyric was something about "other girls get something, but I get the bruises" and "he hits me on the hour every hour." It was a different time--sensibilities have changed.
So, do you ever go to see new musicals?
Yes, yes, yes, I absolutely do! And have loved some of them. I'm just not so taken when the desire to be cutting-edge or adventurous in the creation or writing takes away from the storytelling. I think both are possible--look at Next to Normal. I really enjoyed, with the caveat that the sound was a bit loud, American Idiot. I loved the concept and presentation and vision and execution, and Tom Kitt's arrangements. I'm terribly fond of Taboo, which is itself a weird thing to acknowledge [laughs].
Stick around 40 years and you can do that at Unsung Musicals.
I know, right. Exactly!
Photos, top to bottom: from left, Autumn Hurlbert, Drew Gehling, Max von Essen, Erin Davie and Alli Mauzey; from left, Teal Wicks, Donna Bullock, Adam Kantor and Rachel de Benedet; Carolyn Leigh; Ben West. [West photo by Dixie Sheridan]