On Sept. 8, 1997, Maurice Levine, founder of the 92nd Street YMHA's Lyrics & Lyricists Series, died of a stroke he suffered in June 1997. His legacy was to create a musical seminar that looked back at the careers and legacies of musical theatre's greatest writers and composers.
What better way to honor Levine's memory then, than with a musical tribute? Angela Lansbury hosts the star-studded event, happening May 18 at the 92nd Street Y's Kaufmann Concert Hall.
Titled "The Longest Running Show On Broadway: A Musical Tribute To Maurice Levine," the evening features appearances by Mike Burstyn (The Fishkin Touch), Debbie Gravitte (Jerome Robbins' Broadway), Kitty Carlisle Hart, George Hearn (The Diary of Anne Frank, La Cage Aux Folles), Judy Kaye (Ragtime), Judy Kuhn (Chess), Jim Lowe, Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line), Tony Randall (The Sunshine Boys), critic Rex Reed, Marcia Lewis and the "Six Merry Murderesses" of Broadway's Chicago (doing "He Had It Coming" from the show), and the 92-Y Children's Choir.
Charles Repole directs the event, with Don Pippin serving as musical director. Designing the tribute are Michael Anania (sets) and Jack Mehler (lighting). (The show uses a set-piece of blue musical notes against a red sunset backdrop.) Michael Colby penned the script. For tickets ($300) to this black tie benefit for the 92nd Street Y call (212) 415-5488.
A look-in at the event's rehearsal offered a peek at the evening's musical numbers and talents.
Sheldon Harnick, Tony Randall, and television personality & former NY mayor Edward I. Koch doing a trio on "Little Tin Box" from Fiorello. Asked by Playbill On-Line if he was worried audiences would laugh at his foghorn voice rather than with it, Koch said, "Every mayor has to respond to a show put on by the press every year. For twelve years I did an "Inner Circle Show," so I'm used to it. In fact, the last show I did was directed by Tommy Tune, who had me wear a gold lame suit with two pigeons on my head. And it was uproarious. The crowd loves it. Why? Well, it reminds me of that old story about the dancing bear in the circus. The audience is going crazy, but one guy isn't impressed so he turns to his neighbor and says, `The bear can't dance very well, can't sing, he's clumsy. What's the big deal?' His friend says, `It's a miracle he can dance at all!' That's how I feel; it's a miracle I'm up there at all!"
A few minutes later, the equally miraculous George Hearn was belting the signature tune from La Cage aux Folles, "I Am What I Am." Hearn told Playbill On-Line, "It's a tremendous song. I remember one time I sang it, and a fellow actor was crying and crying. I came up to him and said, `Yes, it's quite a powerful number.' And he said, `I'm not crying because of that. I just wish a composer would write a song like that for me!'"
Hearn, 63, is currently on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank -- and raising a 17-month-old son. He told Playbill On-Line doing a straight play like Anne Frank was a way of keeping honest, since with musicals "you tend to go big and over-the-top a bit. This forces you back into the real thing." Hearn did confess if he had one show to revive and star in, it would be a musical: South Pacific.
For her part, hostess Angela Lansbury pines for doing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but her real regret was the collapse of the initial line-up of Sunset Boulevard. "It was supposed to be Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim following up Sweeney Todd, but Steve said the piece really should be an opera. And I wouldn't do the [Lloyd] Webber version."
What Lansbury is doing is a new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, based on Friedrich Duerenmatt's dark satire, The Visit. Scheduled for a workshop in January 1999, the show is likely to tour briefly before targeting Broadway in fall 1999.
"I believe the voice will be intact," Lansbury told Playbill On-Line. "I did that musical on television, [Jerry Herman's] `Mrs. Santa Claus', which had nine songs." Due to hip replacement surgery, Lansbury walks with a cane, but she has no trouble getting around and, though `terrified' of touring, appears ready for the rigors of appearing in a new musical.
"Of course, I still have to talk with John and Fred on what they have in mind for the score, but I think Terrence McNally will get the book down very nicely. We're using a translation that's more human and has more humor. That's important, because the audience basically knows what will happen from the second scene on."
According to the NY Post obituary, Levine received a master's degree in music from Yale and started at the YMHA in 1947 as conductor of its symphonic workshop. In 1987, he wrote the narration for concert versions of Let `Em Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He started Lyrics & Lyricists in 1970 and served as its artistic director for 27 consecutive years.
According to 92nd Street Y spokesperson Kate Cohen, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Sheldon Harnick and Rex Reed spoke at the funeral, Sept. 10, 1997. "It was very touching, very him, very Maurice," Cohen said of the service. " Rex [Reed] told some very funny stories. He lived in the Dakota; Maurice lived next door. And when Maurice needed help with something, he'd often rush over. Maurice even referred to Rex and Jim [Lowe] as the token Gentiles at the 92nd Street Y. Rex introduced Maurice to goyische food in exchange for learning Yiddish phrases. Maurice used to say Rex was the only person he'd ever seen who put tartar sauce on gefilte fish."
Added Cohen about Levine: "Such tenacity, such energy, such feistiness. He was a great friend of the American musical song."
Last up in the 1998 Lyrics & Lyricists season, June 13-15, is "The Songs Of Jerome Kern, Revisited"
More than 100 years old, the 92nd Street Young Men's & Young Women's Hebrew Association, devoted to individual and family development within the context of Jewish and American life, has featured such speakers as Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher.
-- By David Lefkowitz