A Life in the Theatre: Charles Strouse

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01 Sep 2009

Charles Strouse
Charles Strouse
The composer of Annie, Golden Boy, Applause and the upcoming Minsky's is back on Broadway with his first hit — Bye Bye Birdie.

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Composer Charles Strouse has won three Tony Awards: for Bye Bye Birdie, his first Broadway musical, in 1961; for Applause in 1970; and for Annie in 1977. He also has four other Tony nominations — for Golden Boy (1965), Charlie and Algernon (1981), Rags (1987) and Nick and Nora (1992). Over the years he has worked with several lyricists, including Lee Adams, Martin Charnin and Stephen Schwartz, and has also won two Emmy Awards and two Grammys. Strouse, who is 81 years old, is a member of both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Theatre Hall of Fame. His hits include "Tomorrow," "Put on a Happy Face" and "Those Were the Days," the familiar theme song from the 1970s TV sitcom "All in the Family."

Q. What is it about theatre that drew you to it, that made you want to spend your career writing music for the stage?

A. You can make a lot of money and you meet beautiful girls. That was underneath many other things. Primarily, I've been taught by many wonderful, very fine teachers throughout my life, and I have what I believe every composer has at heart — the way a fine tailor feels about his material, I feel about musical notes.

Q. Please tell me how it all began — about your childhood, how you first became interested in writing music, how you began your career.

A. I grew up on the West Side of Manhattan, 78th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. A lot of well-known people came from around there, like Burt Bacharach. We were friends. Everyone would call him Happy. I was Buddy. When I got married, my wife said, 'Forget the Buddy.' So I became who I really was.

My first connection with music was through my mother. She was a pianist. She played a kind of ragtime piano. That was the first thing I heard. She was a very sad woman. I started tinkering at the piano to amuse her, to make her happy. She liked it, I guess. I had a good ear and took lessons. I went to P.S. 87 and Townsend Harris High School, and when it was time to go to college I went to music school. I was quite young — 15. I wanted to go to Yale, but Yale said I was too young, so I went to the Eastman School of Music and took courses in music theory and composition, sight singing, harmonic dictation. When I graduated in 1947, I sent some of my music to Tanglewood, and I became a student of Aaron Copland and had my music played there. I got a scholarship to study with the composer, conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. I also studied with the composer David Diamond.

Q. That sounds like a very serious music career. How did you get involved in musical theatre?

A. I needed to earn money. I did orchestrations for the music department of 20th Century Fox, for "Movietone News." It was a lousy job, but it taught me a lot. I started playing piano for actors and singers. I became the pianist at the Actors Studio, and I started coaching and playing for auditions.

I only remember seeing one musical with my father and mother — Cole Porter's Let's Face It! with Danny Kaye. My interest was in serious music. I thought I might have a shot at symphonic work. I knew Lenny Bernstein at Tanglewood, and of course he became the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, but he never would play anything of mine. I pursued that career — I wrote a string quartet, a piano concerto — but that career was shadowed by the fact that every day I was playing at auditions and playing rehearsal piano. This started taking my emotional life to a different place. I liked it. I liked the people. I started to enjoy it.

I met Lee Adams at a party, and we started working together. We hit it off, and that was that. We went to a place called Green Mansions, a summer resort in upstate New York, and we wrote material for revues. We contributed work to Off-Broadway shows, like Shoestring Revue, in 1956. I was playing rehearsal piano for a show called Saratoga. The stage manager, Edward Padula, had seen Shoestring Revue. He said, 'Buddy, I heard that you compose music too. I have an idea for a show about teenagers. Would you be interested in working with Lee on it?' I said yes. It was originally called Let's Go Steady. It became Bye Bye Birdie.

Q. You and Adams got the job, and in 1961 you won your first Tony on your first try, against competition like Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Do Re Mi, Meredith Willson's The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Tenderloin. You won your next Tony in 1970 with Applause. What was it like working with Lauren Bacall?

A. She was the hardest worker. Although she was known publicly as grouchy — she won't sign autographs, and she can be what some call 'rude,' she's not really rude. She's been there and back. And she taught me a lot about standing up for myself. For a time I didn't feel as if I was doing anything important or worthwhile. I had worked with a couple of master composers, and I was writing "Put on a Happy Face." But for a long while now I feel that what I have done with my life is worthwhile, and Bacall was instrumental in that, because she wouldn't take any nonsense from anybody.

Q. How did Annie happen?

A. An old friend of mine, Martin Charnin, said he had the best idea for a musical. I asked what it was, and he said he couldn't tell me over the phone. When we got together and he said it was Little Orphan Annie, I said I hated the idea. I hated it because I had done a show called It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman and it closed in four months. Hal Prince, its producer and director, always said to me that if you ever write something for children you better make sure it's marketed as an adult show that a parent can bring a child to. If it's a children's show it won't be as successful. And sure enough, he hit on something.

Q. Is it music first or lyrics first, or does it depend on the partner?

A. In my new show, Minsky's, the director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, started as a hoofer, and he responds only to music at the beginning, so I do the music first. It was similar in Annie, although Martin did a couple of lyrics first. For "Hard Knock Life" he gave me the whole lyric.

Q. Bye Bye Birdie is being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company this month at Henry Miller's Theatre, and Minsky's, which was done in Los Angeles earlier this year and is based on the 1968 movie about old-time burlesque, "The Night They Raided Minsky's," seems to be headed to Broadway this season. Is it coming in?

A. My partner, Susan Birkenhead, and I, and everyone else, have done a great deal of work on the Minsky's that was in California. And we will definitely do it on Broadway this season.

Q. Is there anything you haven't done in your career that you'd like to do?

A. Absolutely. I don't want to sound pretentious, but I'd like to write something that shows some of the tools of music that I still feel I'm trying to master — something to expand the depth, the complexity, the scheme, the harmonic vocabulary. I'm still very much interested in writing what people call serious music. I don't want to write a fugue, but I have some knowledge of counterpoint and the human voice and instrumental attributes, and I'd like to put that to work. I still love dealing with notes.

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View the Entire Photo Gallery
Backstage at Annie. (L-R): Thomas Meehan (book writer), Martin Charnin (lyricist/director), Andrea McArdle (Annie), Charles Strouse (composer), Reid Shelton (Daddy Warbucks), Peter Howard (musical director) and Sandy. Alvin Theatre, circa 1977.
Photo by Martha Swope