Peter Howard and Alvin Colt: An Intimate Examination

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By Glen Roven

Peter Howard and Alvin Colt, two friends of mine, have now walked through that great stage door in the sky.  I spent a lot of time with these artists—both titans in their fields: Peter, the consummate Broadway Musical Director/Dance Arranger whose credits include Chicago, Annie and 1776, and Alvin, the six foot five (or as he used to say, five foot 17) Costume Designer who designed the original Guys and Dolls, On the Town, and a hundreds others.

A Julliard graduate, Peter kept two nine- foot grands in his tiny Hell's Kitchen apartment so a guest had to nail himself against the wall in order to scrunch his way across the living room. He had prepared for a concert career (his last name was really Horowitz) but was seduced by the bright lights of Broadway. It was a good marriage, for although Peter could toss off a Chopin Etude (more about that later) at a Carnegie Hall level, he really came alive playing the rags, marches and syncopated rhythms of Broadway.

His career spanned decades. He was the rehearsal pianist for the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady and he alone was responsible for Rex Harrison's definitive vocal interpretations. According to him, anyway.

In Peter's accounting, the "Fair Lady" musical rehearsals were a disaster.  Connoisseurs have learned from their study of the complete vocal score that Higgins' music has lovely, completely notated vocal lines.  But Rex couldn't sing it at all.  Peter loved to tell anyone who'd listen that after the entire creative team was at their respective wits end trying to get a tone-deaf Rex to develop pitch, it was Peter who said, "I have an idea." He took Rex into a small rehearsal room and said, "Don't sing it. Speak it. Like this…" And the rest is history. True or false? Does it matter?

Peter was also the assistant conductor of The Sound of Music and it was his job to put new cast members into the show. He would love to tell of a young, unknown wannabe named Barbra coming to his apartment for coaching sessions, begging to get an audition for Lisle. "But Barbrrraaa," Peter would say, "You look too Jewish for a Trapp girl." "Whaddya talking 'bout, " Barbra would plead. "I got thirty-six expressions. " Or something like that. Peter also swears that it was he who gave her "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. " And why not? (Another friend of mine who was Rolf in the bus and truck of Sound of Music reminded me that Peter had a little poodle that he had trained to jump up on command and attack a person's genitals. But that's for a different website.)

One of my favorite stories about Peter is how he used to terrify his assistants. Eddie Strauss, another premiere Musical Director told me Peter hired him to be the rehearsal pianist for a new but ill-fated Broadway musical, Her First Roman. Eddie, an excellent pianist himself,  said that one day, Peter, in a fit of inspiration, ran to the piano and, while playing Chopin's diabolically difficult Revolutionary Etude in his left hand, added the main love song of Her First Roman in his right. Eddie almost had a coronary. This was a Horowitz, clearly not a Howard.

When I first came on the scene, Peter asked me to assist him on Annie. (I was subsequently fired.) I also remember the day, early in rehearsals during a break, when Peter was taken with "inspiration" and again played the Etude in his left hand while playing "Tomorrow" in his right. [Although Peter added a bit of drama—and he loved the drama-- with his "inspiration", it was still no small feat.] I had a feeling this feat had been rehearsed.  But the fact that he could pull that off even with  practice was enough to make any rehearsal pianist weep.

Years later, I was proud to hire him to do the dance arrangements for my still-to-be-produced-but-it's-happening-next-season musical, The 5,000 Fingers of Doctor T, the story of a diabolical piano teacher who wants to dominate the world. Peter and I were in London, huddled around a beaten down upright, brainstorming about the music for Doctor T's first entrance. This time, it was I who had the inspiration. "Peter, " I said with a grin the Cheshire Cat would have envied, " Why don't you play Chopin's Revolutionary Etude and then…gee…I don't know if it's possible…, but maybe you can play Doctor T's theme in your right hand." Before I could get the words out of my mouth, Peter was off and running.  It was brilliant of course. As brilliant as it always had been. Then he suddenly stopped, looked at me and I'm sure he thought, "Did I… did he?"  I answered telepathically, "You did, you did." We never said another word about it.

It was much harder to get juicy stories out of Alvin. Maybe he was so tall, that stooping over to tell me stories, (I'm only 5'6 on a good day) was too hard on his back.

Happily, I did get my share: It seemed Frank Loesser wrote "Take Back Your Mink" after Guys and Dolls closed in Philadelphia to replace the original second act opening which wasn't working. Alvin told me how he had the lyrics in his hand on the train back to New York City and he designed the new Strip Tease costumes on the two-hour train ride so they could go right to the shop, ready for the first NY preview. (I think he might have also told me that it was he who suggested to Loesser that they do a strip in that spot, but I honestly can't remember that exactly. But it was possible.)

In addition to Guys and Dolls, Alvin and Michael Kidd did Lil' Abner together. Alvin told me that in the middle of rehearsal when all the clothes were already in production, he realized that even the Broadway version of the cartoon was a cartoon. So he told Kidd he had an idea. He ran to the costume shop and announced, "We're trimming everything, and I mean everything, in black piping!" "But that would be miles and miles of black piping. Where are we gonna find that?" asked the panicking wardrobe supervisor.  "I don't know, " said Alvin, "But we will!" And they did. Because they were so late, Alvin was there at the shop helping with the sewing and, "sewing piping around each and every button." Consequently, each character looked like it was outlined in black ink---just like a cartoon.

I started working with Alvin in the early '80s. This was after his Broadway career had slowed way down. But no matter. Alvin had much more life in him and we did four or five major TV spectaculars  a year, mostly for Alexander H. Cohn and Hildy Parks.  (See my article on Hildy!)

One of my favorite experiences with him was on a huge three hour ABC special, Happy Birthday, Hollywood. There were probably a thousand costumes, with 80 alone just for Liza's opening, but I was particularly fond of a 15 minute tribute to the 50's MGM musicals we did starring Bernadette Peters and Treat Williams. I had concocted a Comden and Green-esque plot following Bernadette as a rags-to-riches movie star. This was one of the first times that I had conceived, written and arranged an entire "musical" for TV so I was anxious to be involved in every aspect.

The Day Before we were to leave for Los Angeles, I insisted Alvin come to my apartment and show me the costumes. Not that I needed to approve them or anything like that; I just wanted to see the designs. (I thought I'd outgrow that phase. But even today I get a great buzz when I see designers visualize what I have written.)

It was pouring that day, but Alvin, ever the trouper, and recognizing a fellow show-biz animal, slogged over to my house in the rain, his portfolio case jammed full of sketches for 200 hundred costumes. I remember him saying, "Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser NEVER made me come over to their homes to see the costumes. And in the pouring rain!"  I smiled. I knew he was enjoying it as much as I was.

Of course, the costumes were dazzling and I was in heaven. But then he said, "Glen, we have a problem here. Bernadette has no time to change from hers pre-movie star costume into this glamorous one." Ever the pro, I said, "But I gave you 30 seconds of music!" He laughed, "Kid, you gotta lot to learn." And he started to teach me exactly how quick changes were made and what they entailed and what I as the composer had to be aware of. What a lesson. And I've never made that mistake again. In anything I'm involved with, actors may not always have the best material, but they always have enough time to change. Because of Alvin.

Photo of Peter Howard by Craig Brockman

Photo of Alvin Colt by Ben Strothmann

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