July 8, 2008

In New Memoir, Broadway Composer Charles Strouse, 80, Looks Back on Success, Failure and Tumult

NEW YORK _ The tributes were predictably extravagant at the 80th-birthday party for Broadway composer Charles Strouse one recent evening at the posh 21 Club. "Melodies that touch the heart and lodge in the head," was how his longtime collaborator, "Bye Bye Birdie" lyricist Lee Adams, described the music Strouse has written for 30 shows over 50 years.

You might expect to see the recipient of such plaudits walking on air or water; instead, Strouse faced his friend of many years and muttered, "I didn't know you liked me." He wasn't quite serious _ but when President Bush's birthday proclamation was read by one of his four children, Strouse assumed it was a family prank. It wasn't.

An explanation is warranted.

"There's something in my nature _ it's complicated. I'm not humble," says Strouse, "but I'm modest." He's still thrilled when his songs pop out of the radio, but if he goes to a cabaret and his music is absent, "I get ..." His voice falters.

That comes of having an unusually, brutally clear sense of who he is, and isn't _ an awareness no doubt honed in the writing of his just-out memoir, "Put on a Happy Face" (Union Square Press). In it, Strouse emerges as something of a Zelig-like figure in his own life, creating shows that have become part of America's theater landscape.

He may be the best-trained Broadway composer of his generation, having spent a year in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, whose students include Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. He's worked with most of the greats, from Gower Champion in "Bye Bye Birdie" to Alan Jay Lerner in "Dance a Little Closer." He had a fistfight with Warren Beatty while recording the film score he wrote for "Bonnie and Clyde." The theme song for TV's "All in the Family" is his. He tossed off "Tomorrow" just to cover a scene change in the now-classic "Annie."

Nonetheless ...

"I've never been considered a No. 1 choice to do a show, because people think of me as pleasant and happy, and that's not part of today's world," he says. Often, he's oblivious to the later life his songs have in non-Broadway circles. It was news to him that punk poet Patti Smith sang "Tomorrow" as a post-9/11 anthem of hope. Nor did he realize that "Hard Knock Life," also from "Annie," had been sampled into a hip-hop mega-hit by rapper Jay-Z, until he heard two girls singing it on the street.

Like many who have made great fortunes by projecting a sunny temperament, the author of "Put on a Happy Face" admits to a mostly-cloudy New York City upbringing. His chronically depressed mother frequently discussed suicide and eventually was institutionalized for prescription drug addiction. His father had diabetes, arteriosclerosis, a cough that never stopped, and difficulty walking.

"He couldn't stand things that were unpleasant. I think that 'Put on a Happy Face' stems from wanting to please my parents," Strouse says. "For years, I'd call myself a depressive. Working your way out of that ... the sunshine is brighter."

Nonetheless, his memoir is bouncy, candid, tragicomic and only occasionally horrifying. Consider his encounters with drugs: He took hashish with author/composer Paul Bowles in Paris and ended up terrified, but was told he had a good trip; a pill from Alan Jay Lerner to cure his backache left him asking for his wife and children to be brought to his bedside to say goodbye.

He knew Chita Rivera when the two of them toyed with giving her a less-ethnic stage name: Chita O'Hara. He toured in the Deep South as piano accompanist to "Gone With the Wind's" Butterfly McQueen and was literally spat on at a roadside diner. The fight with Beatty had to do with the actor asking for piccolos and tubas for "Bonnie and Clyde." During the 1964 pre-Broadway Philadelphia previews of "Golden Boy" with Sammy Davis Jr., Strouse and others were subjected to so many racially based threats that they had bodyguards escort them to the theater.

Davis requested so many changes in the show that Strouse pleaded creative exhaustion and penned the song "No More" _ which received a sterling review from none other than Martin Luther King Jr. Later, Strouse and Davis marched for civil rights during a fraught visit to Selma, Ala.

Stylistically, Strouse is impossible to pin down. His music functions so completely to meet the immediate needs of the show or film at hand, the only consistent factor is his buoyant, inexhaustible lyricism. It's always been there, and still is, right up to his new stage adaptation of the 1955 Oscar-winning film "Marty."

It's hard to perceive influences from the severe Nadia Boulanger in, say, "Bye Bye Birdie's""I've Got a Lot of Living to Do." But it's there. Strouse recalls her wanting to hear everything he'd written, even a song he wrote at age 12 titled "Moon Over 83rd Street." She respected his talent for light music (as the French do) and gave him a sense of who he was and what he could be: "Boulanger would've encouraged me to not go to the same E-flat because we've heard it before," he says. "So I have a way of going for a higher or different note."

One thing that couldn't be taught was Strouse's ability to weather flops. Statistically speaking, he's had as much bad luck as good, much of it having nothing to do with his efforts. His "Annie" follow-up, 1993's "Annie Warbucks," flopped in Washington, then was triumphantly revised in Chicago _ but was only a middling success when stuffed into a small, off-Broadway theater in New York. The sequel is better than the original, he says. But does anyone notice?

One of his worst trials was 1991's "Nick and Nora." In fact, the only person in Strouse's book who receives a thorough trashing is "Nick and Nora" author/director Arthur Laurents. He comes off as a poor collaborator, and so prone to insults that Strouse fantasized about being on trial for his murder ("He could be mean as hell").

Yet Strouse continues coming back for more. His musical version of "The Night They Raided Minsky's" goes into rehearsal late this year at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. At least three other projects _ including a version of "Marty," starring John C. Reilly in the Ernest Borgnine role, that was produced several years ago at Boston's Huntington Theater _ are in the wind.

So there's still more living to do, albeit maybe not the kind he's lived before. Though he has often resented the way rock musicals are praised at the expense of his more traditional ones, he'll admit with some prodding that he loved "Hair" and that "Rent" author Jonathan Larson was a student of his (and a resourceful one). He recently saw Broadway's rock- and blues-influenced "Passing Strange" and was left feeling a bit envious of the ability of its star and author Stew to become carried away with his own music.

"There's a great lesson for me in that. I'm a self-conscious person. I find it rare and sometimes difficult to lose myself and get crazy. I've got it in me. ... I've got the rhythm," he says, with a beatbox demonstration of hip-hop styling worthy of Jay-Z.

Then there's the group camaraderie of that world: "I don't have that ability," he says, "but I'm learning it."


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