Richard Engquist, Kuni-Leml Lyricist, Dies at 76

By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones
22 Mar 2010

Richard Engquist
Richard Engquist

Richard Engquist, the lyricist behind Off-Broadway's Kuni-Leml and other musicals, died March 18. A lifelong smoker who quit the habit more than a decade ago, he succumbed to lung cancer. He was 76.

Mr. Engquist's works were modest-sized, but often lavishly praised. They included the chamber musicals Kuni-Leml and Little Ham, both of which played Off-Broadway. His lyrics were frequently cited for their wit and cleverness.

Mr. Engquist often drew on Jewish themes and folklore for his subject matter, and that focus produced his best-known success. Kuni-Leml was based on a play written before 1880 by Abraham Goldfadn, the father of the Yiddish Theatre. Kuni-Leml is young pious Hasid with a squint, a stammer, a lump and a limp. He is engaged to an unwilling young woman, who is in love with an enlightened student, leading to various farcical situations.

The show bowed at Jewish Repertory Theatre in 1984 and was embraced by the critics. "This Kuni Leml is an expertly crafted tuneful presentation that, blending two old traditions, the Yiddish and the operetta, is a thoroughly modern effort," wrote Richard Shepard in the New York Times. "The music matches the delightful and witty lyrics by Richard Engquist." Kuni-Leml won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical

Despite the seemingly niche character of the show, it was picked up by companies across the nation and became a regional favorite. Jewish Rep itself revived the show with success in the late 1990s.



Mr. Engquist enjoyed a second critical success in 2001, when his unlooked-for Little Ham premiered at the Hudson Theatre Guild and surprised critics with its musicality and liveliness. A bit of a departure for the writer, Little Ham, drew on a 1936 comedy of the same name by Langston Hughes, and was a portrait of a 1920s Harlem neighborhood in the thrall of the numbers racket.

The New York Times' Bruce Weber, reviewing Little Ham in 2002, wrote, "Seasoned with the unflowery but poetic lyrics by Mr. [Judd] Woldin and Richard Engquist ("Not a soul is now in sight/ Not quite day, not quite night/ Every streetlight glows like a smoky pearl"), many of the songs are unassuming gems. With a cast of unselfish character actors melding into a rollicking ensemble, Little Ham was a modest show that blew out a tiny house."

His other shows included My Heart Is in the East at Jewish Rep in 1983, which took as its hero Judah Halevy, the great poet of the golden age of Sephardic Jewry in 12th-century Spain; the Sholom Aleichem-inspired Half a World Away, at Jewish Rep in 1987; Abie's Island Rose, a Caribbean spin on the old play Abie's Irish Rose, also by Jewish Rep; and Elizabeth and Essex, a musicalization of Maxwell Anderson's 1930 blank verse drama Elizabeth the Queen, at the York Theatre Company in 1984.

A little-known Judd Woldin-Richard Engquist musical about the colorful life of Mozart's librettist Lorenzo DaPonte was heard in two Manhattan concert presentations in June 2007. Lorenzo - The Libertine Librettist has music by Woldin, lyrics by Engquist and book by Woldin and Engquist, drawing freely on the life and legend of long-lived DaPonte (1749-1838), who penned the libretti to Mozart's Cosi fan tutti, Don Giovanni and La nozze di Figaro. It was later produced in the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival.

His work is preserved on cast albums of Kuni-Leml, Abie's Island Rose and Little Ham.

Mr. Engquist was also on the steering committee of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where he often moderated sessions. He was a proponent of craft and story and tradition, and, with weary eyes, would sometimes admit that he was ill-equipped to comment on anything that seemed too unstructured, shaggy or experimental. "Get a librettist," he would say. He pointed his students to the Golden Age of Musicals (roughly 1943-1964) for examples and inspiration. In the workshop newsletter, he wrote a regular column in which he admitted he was a curmudgeon.

Mr. Engquist was nearly 40 when he joined the BMI Workshop, hoping to revive a childhood dream to write for theatre. "Once I was a accepted as a member of the workshop, I discovered that I could write lyrics," he once said. "Fortunately, [workshop founder] Lehman Engel liked me and encouraged me. Eventually I started writing shows."

His first show in New York was Elizabeth and Essex, with music by Workshop alumnus Doug Katsaros and a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. The initial production starred Estelle Parsons and a revival by the York Theatre Company featured opera star Evelyn Lear. "That experience was fascinating," he said. "I learned so much from Michael Stewart, who was a consummate professional but not an easy person. But on balance, I finally came to like him and love him."

Mr. Engquist once observed, "As a teacher in the workshop, one has to look for the dreamers, look for talent and encourage and nurture. Out of five hundred people with talent, only a handful may end up with careers writing for the theatre, because talent isn't everything. Sometimes it's being in the right place at the right time, having the right show, having the right collaborator. But others may come through the workshop and work as conductors, coaches, arrangers or [prose] writers.

"I have an enormous storehouse of theatrical information and experience. I've come to a point in my career and life where I'm happy to pass on to others what I have acquired and that's what gives me joy."

He is survived by his wife of 44 years, the New York Times health and wellness writer Jane Brody, who recently wrote movingly about his final days. His is also survived by twin sons Erik and Lorin, and four grandchildren, two of which are twins.