Few titles for Erik Haagensen's revue of the lyrics of John Latouche could be more apt than Taking a Chance on Love, the name of Latouche's best-known song. Staging any theatre piece is, of course, taking a big chance, and love of the work is what impelled Haagensen, a playwright lyricist himself, to celebrate Latouche in a four-person revue that runs through March 26 at Off-Broadway's York Theatre.
"I think John is one of the top talents we've had in the American musical theatre," said Haagensen in a recent backstage interview. "But because he did not have the boffo smash, and because most of his shows were not recorded -- and even The Golden Apple is recorded in such a truncated fashion -- his name has slipped into obscurity. I was delighted at the opportunity to put his work in front of an audience and say, 'Take a look at this.'"
Certainly few people could connect Latouche's name even with "Taking a Chance on Love," the show-stopper that Ethel Waters introduced in Cabin in the Sky, Latouche's 1940 musical with Vernon Duke. Yet Latouche, who died in 1955 at 41, was prolific, not only writing musicals but also operas, ballets and revues. In addition to the critically-praised 1954 show Golden Apple, which he wrote with Jerome Moross, Latouche collaborated with composer Douglas Moore on the 1956 opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, which starred Beverly Sills. His other partners ranged from Leonard Bernstein (Candide) to Duke Ellington (Beggar's Holiday). In 1939 his "Ballad for Americans" was recorded by Paul Robeson and played ubiquitously on radio, and he churned out novelty songs such as Carmen Miranda's "Cae Cae" in "That Night in Rio" and "Zombie," written with Xavier Cugat.
Latouche's lyrics could be as witty as Cole Porter's. In "I'm Everybody's Baby," a highlight of the revue, a woman of easy virtue sings: "I'm everybody's baby/But now I'm wined and dined and don't get in till late./Mention sin and watch me scintillate." Sending up small-town life in The Golden Apple, he writes: "Nothing ever happens in Angel's Roost./The culture hereabouts is in a fog/The only books we crack/Are the Farmer's Almanac/The Scriptures, and Sears Roebuck catalog."
Haagensen first became interested in Latouche a few years ago while researching a magazine article on The Golden Apple. "I really didn't know who he was at all or most of his work," he says. "One of the things that intrigued me was that I'd discovered all of these other projects that he had written that were never recorded or were unknown." Then last year, over drinks with the York's artistic director, Jim Morgan, and managing director, Robert Buckley, the subject of Latouche came up. Buckley's father had conducted the premiere of Baby Doe, and once Haagensen began talking about his earlier discoveries about Latouche, Morgan broke in excitedly: "You've got a show!"
Easier said than done. Haagensen wanted not only to present the music but also to give a sense of the man. "I found the one thing that did exist in his very small archives at Columbia University were letters and journals," says Haagensen. Born in 1914 in Virginia, John Treville Latouche won a literary contest at 17 that brought him a scholarship to the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. After only a year there, he got a scholarship to Columbia, where he spent two years before leaving to write musical comedy. In New York's intellectual circles, Latouche counted Gore Vidal, Dawn Powell, and Paul and Jane Bowles as friends. The gay Latouche, after being left by an earlier lover, who married a woman, also married. "I think that was an expectation in the '30s, that eventually you just grew up and got married, no matter what," says Haagensen.
"One thing I find touching about the journals is that he and [his wife] Teddy clearly expected to become heterosexual. They clearly expected the marriage to be satisfying on an emotional and sexual level, and it wasn't. And that sent her very quickly into analysis." Although Teddy later divorced Latouche, they stayed friends. "Despite the era in which they lived," says Haagensen, "both ended up in successful relationships with members of their own sex."
Drawing on Latouche's journals, Haagensen presents Latouche's homosexual liaisons frankly. But visitors may be surprised to find that, although "gay" crops up frequently in Latouche's lyrics, it is virtually never in the sense commonly used today. "I'm sure that John was well aware of its connotations," says Haagensen, "but every time I see him using the word, he doesn't appear to want it to have double connotations. If you look at Lorenz Hart's lyrics, they're much more coded. Or even when Cole Porter uses it in "Farming" -- you know, "Georgie's bull is beautiful but he's gay" -- clearly he's hoping that the cognoscenti will get it. John uses it in a much more straightforward manner."
If the journals were readily available, finding many of Latouche's songs was much harder. For instance, "Cae Cae" is unpublished, and "That Night in Rio" is unavailable on videocassette. Haagensen also hunted for rarer scores, often fruitlessly. An unproduced 1949 musical, Tamborito, with Cuban classical composer Ernesto Lecuona, couldn't be located, nor could Mooncalf, a musical about the biblical Joseph written with Lehmann Engel and produced in Cleveland the same year. Even a musical like The Vamp, a Carol Channing vehicle which had favorable reviews on the road but was apparently fine-tuned into a disaster on Broadway in 1955, might face difficulties being revived now, he says. The Library of Congress has many of its songs, but Haagensen was unable to find a usable version of the book. Still, The Vamp is represented at the York, as well as Beggar's Holiday, Cabin in the Sky, The Golden Apple, Ballad of Baby Doe, and the 1941 Eddie Cantor musical Banjo Eyes.
Haagensen, whose collaboration with composer Paul Schwartz on the musical Summer won the 1998 Richard Rodgers Award, hopes Taking a Chance on Love goes on to other productions. At 45, he says, his own career is satisfactory. "I'm working in the theatre in New York City," he says. 'I'm a book writer-lyricist. That's what I've wanted to do since I was 12 years old, and that's what I have been doing for all of my adult life in one way or another, sometimes supported by a day job and sometimes, I'm proud to say, not." Currently, a regional theatre is interested in producing Summer.
As for the revue, "I didn't get involved with this thinking in terms of where it would go. I just did it because it was an interesting project... I would really love it to have a recording, because that's really why John is not known." And clearly he wants audiences to come away with the feeling that Charlotte Rae had about Latouche, decades after she stepped into Golden Apple on Broadway. Asked the one word that described Latouche, says Haagensen, "She lit up like a Christmas tree and she said, 'Joy. I remember John bringing joy.'"
-- by Edward Karam