Grass Harp Composer Claibe Richardson Dead

Obituaries   Grass Harp Composer Claibe Richardson Dead
Claibe Richardson, the composer of the Broadway musical, The Grass Harp, which is to get a concert revival this month by the York Theatre Company, died Jan. 5 in Manhattan after a battle with cancer, according to friends in the theatre community.

Mr. Richardson was in his seventies, and leaves behind a handful of respected scores to varied projects, including the aborning shows with writer Stephen Cole, The Night of the Hunter (which receives a Manhattan workshop in April) and Saturday Night at Grossinger's, about the Catskills resort (which BroadHollow Theatre in Long Island will stage in the summer).

With lyricist-librettist Kenward Elmslie, Mr. Richardson adapted Truman Capote's novella of the same name into a short-lived musical that starred Barbara Cook, Karen Morrow and Carole Brice in its 1971 Broadway incarnation. A cast album won fans and the work has made its way to stock and regional productions over the years.

Off-Broadway's York Theatre Company produced the show on its mainstage in 1979 and later in its concert series, Musicals in Mufti. A second Mufti staging of the show is planned for Jan. 17-19. It was to be a tribute to the composer, who has been ailing in recent months.

Mr. Richardson was in Carnegie Hall in October 2002 for the debut of the "Grass Harp Suite," performed by the New York Pops, with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Mr. Richardson was pulled from the audience, made his way down the aisle, shook conductor Skitch Henderson's hand and took a bow.

Lyricist-librettist Stephen Cole was a fan of The Grass Harp and knew Elmslie and Mr. Richardson's later show, Lola, about Lola Montez. In seeking a collaborator, Cole pursued Mr. Richardson and the composer gave in. "I pursued him for a project that didn't work out, but we started talking about working together and he proposed Night of the Hunter at the same time he brought me into Grossinger's," Cole told Playbill On-Line. The latter show about the famed Catskills forum for entertainment had been started by Mr. Richardson and Ronnie Graham. When Graham pulled away from the project, Cole hopped on and the work (with Graham sharing lyric credit) was staged as Grossinger's at Casa Manana in 1997.

Night of the Hunter has a concept CD with Ron Raines, Dorothy Loudon and Sally Mayes singing on it.

"I kind of took him out of retirement," Cole said. "He cursed me and thanked me for that."

What was the Richardson sound like?

"Claibe said he was the last composer not to have been influenced by Sondheim, " Cole said. "He was from the same era, really, the late '50s, early '60s. The only influence I can hear in his work is Jerome Kern because his sound is so lush. He was a Southern gentleman, from Lousiana and Texas, and that Southern sound was very authentic. On the other hand, Lola is very European. He has the most distinctive chord structures of anyone I've ever met."

Mr. Richardson's mentor was Jule Styne, who sponsored the composer into ASCAP many years ago. Grossinger's is dedicated to Styne.

James Morgan, artistic director of the York Theatre, said the York gave The Grass Harp its first revival in 1979. The subsequent York concert in 1992 included book revisions and a new song; that version is now licensed for regional productions (and will be heard Jan. 17-19 under Morgan's direction).

"Out of the first production of The Grass Harp, [Elmslie and Richardson] were so impressed with what we did and how we went about it, they brought us Lola," Morgan said. "We did a full production of that in 1982."

Lola, at various stages of her life, was played by Gretchen Albrecht, Leigh Beery and Jane White. A subsequent studio cast album, with some of the York actors, was released.

Morgan said he would like to see a chamber version of Lola produced at the York in the future. "We talked several times about other possibilities over the years," Morgan told Playbill On-Line. "Nothing really took root. We've been talking about a revised version of Lola. It's a glorious score that deserves to be heard."

Morgan said Mr. Richardson, an honorary board member of the York, was a great supporter of the troupe, which stages new musicals and revivals in an intimate setting. "He believed very strongly in what we are doing and trying to do," Morgan said. "He was always honest."

Mr. Richardson was practical about the business, Morgan said: "Talking about new shows with him, or possibilities of new shows, he was so realistic about what the potential was for a show taking off and being wildly successful...there were no grand ideas about that."

Claiborne Richardson was born in Shreveport, LA, and educated at Louisiana State University. His early songwriting contributions were to Ben Bagley's Shoestring Revue, Julius Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs, as well as Plaza 9 revues and a revue called What a Day, featuring Celeste Holm and Ronnie Graham. He penned the score to The Brightest Show on Earth, for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Robert Russell Bennett conducted and arranged the music for it. Bennett helped Mr. Richardson's get a publishing contract with Chappell Music.

He penned incidental music for The Royal Family directed by Grass Harp director Ellis Rabb, The Philadelphia Story starring Blythe Danner. With Frank Gagliano he wrote the musicals Bodoni County and Congo Square.

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