By Peter Filichia —
We might not have had Avenue Q, A Chorus Line, Nine, Once on This Island and Ragtime and plenty of other excellent musicals without him.
He was Lehman Engel, who was the musical director for thirty Broadway shows, the vocal arranger for fourteen, and the composer of incidental musical for sixteen others. But the reason he may be most remembered is for starting the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop – the place where fledgling composers, lyricists and bookwriters learn to structure a show, create lyrics with perfect rhymes, put accents on the right syllables and find each melody that would match the mood of the moment. Indeed, some years after his death in 1982, the name was changed to the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Certainly such writers as Ed Kleban, Alan Menken and Maury Yeston who greatly benefited from his tutelage applauded that decision.
Engel was born 101 years ago, on Sept. 14, 1910, more than 1,000 miles from the New York City he’d eventually call home. His second Broadway assignment came courtesy of the WPA, as he composed the incidental musical for T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, Murder in the Cathedral. He was all set to conduct the premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock when the government shut down the show hours before its opening. When producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles said the show must go on in another theater with Blitzstein playing the piano, Engel was suddenly out of a job.
He never had to worry. Eliot, Houseman and Welles were hardly the only luminaries with which Engel worked. Add to the list Rosalind Russell (Wonderful Town), Ezio Pinza (Fanny), Lena Horne (Jamaica), Elaine Stritch (Goldilocks), Jackie Gleason (Take Me Along), Phil Silvers (Do Re Mi), Steve Lawrence (What Makes Sammy Run?), Chita Rivera (Bajour) and – oh, yes – Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
Engel loved to tell the story of how Streisand, a bit bored by doing her showstopper “Miss Marmelstein” the way he and director Arthur Laurents had instructed her, told him that she’d now do it her way. He tried dissuading her, but even at the age of 20, Streisand was showing the intractability for which she would become infamous. Engel finally let her have her way, and, as he told the story (which he accompanied with a generous chuckle), she didn’t get a single handclap of applause. The next night, she returned to the performance that Laurents and Engel had originally brought out of her.
In 2006, Jesse Green of The New York Times asked Broadway savants to vote for the best overtures of all time. Gypsy won, of course, followed by Carousel, Candide, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story. Note that those are all famous shows, each of which has enjoyed at least one Broadway revival. But also making the list were Goldilocks and Do Re Mi, musicals that aren’t nearly as famous and have never been revived on Broadway. True, their overtures are marvelous, but musical conductors (along with orchestrators and dance arrangers) often create overtures, so Engel might well have been in part responsible for these two excellent ones. Even if he were not involved, his spirited conducting certainly made them soar. That’s also true of What Makes Sammy Run? Listen to the way those trumpets play in the “Some Days Everything Goes Wrong” section, and you can picture the musical director at the podium stabbing his baton in the air to ensure that the brass is at its brassiest.
When Columbia Records’ Goddard Lieberson decided in the early ‘50s to make studio cast albums of shows that had debuted before the era of the original cast album (or shows that Columbia had missed), he had his pick of conductors. He chose Engel. Among the discs were Babes in Arms, Girl Crazy, Pal Joey, Show Boat and Oh, Kay! (There was also a Bitter Sweet, the 1929 Noel Coward operetta, which didn’t get released; perhaps we’ll be able to get it out of the vaults and make it available.) The Pal Joey, with Harold Lang and original 1940 star Vivienne Segal, turned out to be especially significant; both of them then starred in a 1952 Broadway production that — for nearly 20 years — held the record as the longest-running Broadway revival.
In the early days of the Tony Awards®, a medallion was bestowed on conductors/musical directors. Engel won in 1950-1951 for The Consul, and in 1952-1953 for Wonderful Town and five Gilbert and Sullivans. In other words, his two awards represented one musical, one opera and five operettas. How’s that for depth?
This was a time in Tony® history when only winners were named and no nominees announced. Once that happened, our story gets more interesting. Granted, the three remaining times that Tonys® were given to conductors/musical directors, Engel didn’t win. But he was nominated all three years: Goldilocks (1958-1959), Take Me Along (1959-60) and What Makes Sammy Run? (1963-1964). But here’s the thing: no other person, including each of the winners in those years, ever got more than a single nomination.
There can’t have been many (if any) musical directors and vocal arrangers who became characters in musicals, but Engel can claim that distinction. “Lehman Engel” is very much a presence in A Class Act, a musical that centers on Ed Kleban, the lyricist for A Chorus Line who was Engel’s prize pupil in the BMI Workshop. Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line’s composer, has told me how Kleban always had to air the lyrics he wrote to Engel and workshop members before he had any confidence that he’d written something worthwhile.
In A Class Act, Engel was shown running a workshop session, instructing his pupils how to write a “Charm Song” – “the Southern belle of musicals,” he proclaimed, because it doesn’t “have to do a lick of work; it just makes the audience smile.”
Engel was portrayed by Jonathan Freeman off-Broadway and by Patrick Quinn when the show moved to the Ambassador. Broadway historian Ethan Mordden, once a workshop member, noted that while authors Lonny Price and Linda Kline portrayed Engel as “tall and dapper and vaguely like Cyril Ritchard,” the real man was in fact “grand, fussy and easily piqued.” More than one BMI Workshop alumnus came out of A Class Act wondering why the on-stage students weren’t more scared to death of his terrible swift verbal sword.
Take it from this BMI Workshop alumnus: there’s something to be said for that. But I never saw anyone who wrote a good song who wasn’t wildly appreciated for it. Engel respected talent and hard work, and those who showed both – one ingredient was not enough – were amply rewarded with abundant praise. Many students have alleged that he played favorites. True — but one became a favorite by showing up quite often with terrific material.
So the musical theater is a substantially better place for Lehman Engel’s participation. One shudders to think of all the musicals and recordings than we wouldn’t have had enjoyed if Engel had not been part of Broadway history.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.;