In Conversation

MITCH LEIGH with Phong Bui

On the occasion of the legendary composer/musician/producer’s 85th birthday, Mitch Leigh welcomed publisher Phong Bui to his Upper East Side office, a few blocks from his home, which he shares with his wife, the painter Abby Leigh, to talk about his life and work.

Portrait of Mitch Leigh. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): You were born Irwin Michnick in 1928 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where many remarkable people came from: Meyer Schapiro, Joseph Papp——

Mitch Leigh: Danny Kaye! Mel Brooks! And tons of great doctors, lawyers, judges.

Rail: What was it that made Brownsville such a special place?

Leigh: First of all, it was all Jewish immigrants, mostly working class Jews who fled from Poland, Russia, or the Ukraine between 1880 and 1910, who could not make it on the Lower East Side, which was more expensive and faster paced. Both of my parents came from two different shtetls that were close to each other. They arrived in New York in 1921, the year my elder sister was born, who later had a goiter and died at the age of 14. My other sister, who is 88, lives in California. Wherever the Jews lived, before coming to America, was regarded as a ghetto. And it was all dependent on who was the ruler of Prussia, Poland, or whatever, and if he was a good ruler you could live there. But when he died and his son took over, you had to make sure, “Is it good for the Jews?” which was a phrase that came from the 17th century. It really meant, “Do we have to leave?” The other thing was Jews couldn’t own land. That’s why they became jewelers, bankers, and lenders. And because they couldn’t own, they were allowed to rent pieces of hallowed land. Anyway, the last thing my father, who was an atheist, wanted me to be was either a rabbi or a musician, playing all night long, never home with your wife and children. But he did give me clarinet lessons. He paid Mr. Aaronson, my clarinet teacher, $1 a lesson, and 25 cents for my sister’s ballet class every week. That means it was a dollar and a quarter that went for the arts, 25 percent of the total of $5, which was what my mother could spend to feed our family. My father believed that you just don’t live for food and clothing—you had to have other things in your life—that’s culture, that’s “cool-tour,” which was not atypical!

Rail: And it was during the Great Depression.

Leigh: Yes. Actually, when the guy from Newsweek interviewed me after I scored Man of La Mancha—I was 37 then—he asked me, “How does it feel to go from poverty to affluence in such a relatively short time?” I said, “I didn’t know we were poor! Everyone lived like that!”

Rail: And Brownsville was called “the Jews of America” because every block would have one or two synagogues——

Leigh: Yeah, but I wasn’t bar mitzvah’d——

Rail: It was also known as a hot bed for radicalism—because of its socialists, Zionists, and maverick thinkers.

Leigh: I would’ve been a member of the Young Communist League but I was too young. And by the time I was old enough to join the party, communism was then seen as a problem, so I didn’t. But I remember singing “The International” in Yiddish with my hand raised when I was six years old along with my father at Union Square on May Day.  My father was among the “lefties,” red all the way through, part of the International Workers Order, as opposed to the “righties,” the socialists, of the Workman’s Circle, even though they all were all communists and Jews. But of course there were Jews who were involved with Murder Incorporated in the same neighborhood.

Rail: Also known as the “Brownsville Boys,” which included Bugsy Siegel, Benjamin Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Meyer Lansky—— 

Leigh: Meyer Lansky would have been the most successful head of General Motors if he weren’t a gangster. [Laughs.] He was the one who showed Charles “Lucky” Luciano how to become the top guy, and he kept him there. He would find deals for the guys—whether they were the Jewish or the Italian gangs from Yonkers, Saratoga, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, or so on—but he would never take more than 15 percent, and that’s why he died in bed.

Rail: So neither the political climate nor the danger of organized crime colored your early formation?

Leigh: Not at all, even though they were part of my life. As I told you I didn’t know we were poor. All I knew was that I was alive, and I was constantly thinking of the next move—next is my favorite word. If I ever write an autobiography the title will be Next. The thing is, I wound up going to Yale while others went to jail. I only paid attention to the culture of great music and the arts, and nothing else. I remember as soon as I turned 10 I became infatuated with Benny Goodman, a Jew who played the clarinet, and was a famous jazz musician.

Rail: Did you get to know him?

Leigh: Yes. He was playing a Saturday matinee at the New Yorker Hotel, on 8th avenue and 34th Street. I was a high school kid, I went to the hotel and I said to the fellow behind the front desk, “I’d like to see Benny Goodman.” And to my astonishment he gave me the room number! I went up to the room, pushed the doorbell, and Benny Goodman himself answered the door! I told him who I was, and he smiled. He got a kick out of it. Then he gave me his letterhead, on which he wrote to ask publishing companies to give me two arrangements. Each arrangement was priced at 75 cents, which was a lot in those days. So that was my start with Benny. I had many other encounters with him, but the last one was a sweet one. After his last show at the Paramount the whole band would go to Kelly’s Stables, which was a club on 52nd Street, and have a late night jam session. He asked me to come up and play along with him and his band.

Rail: That’s awesome!

Leigh: And I was having the time of my life, I was just a kid! This late night playing continued until years later when I went to the High School of Music and Art. Everyone thought I was tired from playing gigs, which was true, but it was the free drinks that were given to the band that I could not refuse. Every morning I’d be like, “Shit! I can’t keep doing this up forever.” As soon as I joined the army I stopped drinking hard liquor pretty much as everybody else was just starting.

Rail: What was your experience at the High School of Music and Art?

Leigh: In those days it was up on 135th Street and Convent Avenue, and it would take an hour and a half each way to get from Brownsville. And every once in a while I thought about going to the local school, which was a 10 minute walk away. And my father would say, it’s an honor to be in such a privileged school, you can’t quit, so I stayed and got my degree. My experience there was both good and bad. It was good in the sense that I was made aware of all kinds of music; it wasn’t just jazz. I wrote a mass when I was 15 as part of our study of the history of music. In fact, I submitted it to a contest run by Bishop Stritch, Elaine Stritch’s uncle, who was the Archbishop of Chicago, and I won first place. But the bad part was that because I won this award, I became a star. So all of a sudden, I’m getting lessons from teachers who are telling me what I did wrong. They spent so much time criticizing me that I didn’t want to compose anymore. So when I left High School of Music and Art, I thought I would become an accountant, which is what my father wanted.

Rail: And joined the army.

Leigh: Because I wanted to get the G.I. Bill before the government closed it down. I joined the army in September 1946. I had two jobs: I played shortstop for the Army Baseball Team and I was Drum Major for the Fifth Army Headquarters Band. That’s all I did, nothing else. Then I broke my ankle sliding into home plate and I was laid up in Walter Reed Army Hospital for months. Every Sunday, the Boston Philarmonic was broadcast on the radio and one afternoon, I heard Serge Koussevitzky conducting Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The second part was to be played the next week, and I could think of nothing else. The Red Cross gave out free postcards and I sent mine to Hindemith, who was teaching at Yale. Amazingly, Hindemith answered me, a private in the army, and told me to send him some music and to apply to Yale. I went to Yale in the fall of the same year.

Rail: Both undergraduate and graduate?

Leigh:  Yes, and to specifically study with Paul Hindemith, who was teaching there, even though at the time I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a composer or not, but I knew wanted to study with him, mostly because I never heard music like that in my life.

Rail: And Hindemith was known for having created a triptych of Expressionist-influenced one-act operas Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Das Nusch-Nuschi, and Sancta Susanna.

Leigh: Exactly. But the thing that interested me was the fact that Hindemith was probably one of the greatest theorists since Jean-Philippe Rameau. He taught two courses, one on the history of music and the other on teaching and theory. Through Hindemith I learned the physics of music, which to this day I still apply, although it seems I’m decomposing at the moment [laughs]. Hindemith was the difference in everything. He believed in music for use, which he called “Gebrauchsmusik.” He wrote music for going to the john and everything else. He was incredible and a terrific teacher.

Rail: You once talked about your ability to play different instruments in addition to the clarinet?

Next is my favorite word. If I ever write an autobiography the title will be Next. Leigh: Well, that was Hindemith’s requirement in order to be a composer; you had to study all the orchestral instruments. The only two instruments I don’t play are the guitar and the piano. I compose from my head in any case. Also, you have to remember around 1948 the idea of being able to play both classical and jazz was not an unusual thing. We had jazz clubs on George Street right in New Haven, and in the music school, we used to play jazz gigs to make money on the weekend. Anyway, in 1952 Warner Brothers invited me to join them as a composer/conductor. André Previn was hired by Metro Pictures at the same time. The truth was when they came to Yale I was the only one who was a composer-conductor, so the choice was not difficult. Meanwhile, I was with my ex-wife and full of beans, feeling like I was ready to change the world and all the rest of that stuff. And then nothing happened. I mean, we were living at the Ambassador Hotel, which they paid for, and even though I loved going to the great parties, meeting all sorts of movie stars, having a car and a driver, and so on, there was really nothing to do, so I finally complained to Jack Jr. who was in charge of casting in those days, “I got to do something, I’m going crazy here.” He said, “Okay, let me look into it.” So they called me in and I did one picture about Mexico. They got three mariachis with their big guitars and basses, and I was on the podium with a baton trying to conduct the three guys strumming away. When the red light went on I’d go “boom,” and they’d “dun dun,” doing their stuff, and when the red light went off we would all stop, and the engineer would say, “Thank you, very good,” and that was my entire experience in Hollywood. Three mariachis—it was ridiculous. Finally, Jack Sr. came back and decided to fire everybody.

Rail: What next?

Leigh: Nothing exciting. We came back to Brooklyn. Temporarily we stayed with my in-laws in Manhattan Beach. The problem was it wasn’t like today with computers, which allow you both to write and play music, the pen and the baton didn’t make any noise. I was a composer but I couldn’t audition—everyone had to take my word for it. Hindemith returned to Zurich the year I graduated in 1953, where he conducted more of his own music until he died in 1963. Richard Donovan introduced me to Robert Russell Bennett, an arranger who had worked with Rodgers and Hammerstein on Victory at Sea, which was written for NBC. So I worked with Bennett for a couple of years. Meanwhile, since I could play almost all these instruments I was offered a job as an instrumentalist in NBC’s orchestra, and they would have paid me 1,500 dollars a week. I thought about it, “If I do it, I will get used to the money and I will never compose.” So I refused the offer.

Rail: But you did manage to write some commercials for radio and television?

Leigh: Yes. An accountant lived across the street from my in-laws who said, “Could you write a jingle?” And I said, “I could do anything, are you kidding?” And, he said, “I have a client who’s in the advertising business, I will introduce you to him and see whether he would commission you to do a jingle.” So I met this guy and he said, “We’re doing this thing for Revlon, I want you to do a demo as long as you include the words ‘delightfully scented silken net.’” I did a parody on “London Bridge is falling down,” you know, “Delightfully scented silken net for my fair lady.” I swear to God!  He called me in and he said, “They love your Revlon jingle!” I had a partner at that time, Art Harris, so the two of us went in to his office. And one guy said, “How much do you want?” I said, “I don’t know.” He thought for a minute and said, “Seven fifty.” I figured 10 bucks would have been fine for us and I sat there looking at him across the desk thinking that he’s doing a purchase order for seven dollars and 50 cents! He walked away for a second, came back and gave me 750 dollars. Holy shit! That’s real money, for the first time. So that was my introduction to commercials. Subsequently my company became the number one and there was no number two. I was writing everything, from American Airlines to Sara Lee, Polaroid, etc. At some point, Don Trevor, the head of Doyle Dane Bernbach, the ad agency called up and said, “Are you Mitch Leigh, the jingleteer?” I love that phrase. I called my company “Music Makers Inc.” I had three arrangers on staff, I wrote every night. I worked seven days a week because the next day it had to be arranged, copied, recorded, and I conducted everything. We were in constant demand. I used to say to my guys that we only had those two things to sell: talent and service. The music has to be number one, that was up to me, and the other was good service. No matter how much we were recording we never missed an air date. I was very proud of that fact. I also had done some incidental music. I did a production of Too True to be Good, George Bernard Shaw’s play with an all-star cast, Lillian Gish, Eileen Heckart, Robert Preston, and directed by Albert Marre. Coincidentally, I got a great review in the Times for incidental music; I never got another offer for incidental music again, but I got three offers to do a musical, and one of them was from Marre for Man of La Mancha.

Rail: And W.H. Auden, who was no stranger to musical collaboration or libretti, wrote the original lyrics. He had collaborated with Benjamin Britten, Noah Greenberg, Chester Kallman.

Leigh: Who was Auden’s lover.

Rail: Right. Why didn’t Auden’s version ever materialize?

Leigh: What happened was Auden had a problem with Dale Wasserman’s book. You see, Auden was an expert on Cervantes, not Wasserman, but since the musical was based on Wasserman’s book, Wasserman took issue with Auden’s lyrics. In other words, the reason it stopped was that they didn’t get along.

Rail: That was when Joe Darion came on board?

Leigh: Two or three lyricists afterwards. And it took me three and a half years to write the score of Man of La Mancha.

Rail: Why so long?

Leigh: Because of different lyricists and different setups. And you know why I did it? Because I loved it. I didn’t think it had a chance of being commercially successful. I was working like a stevedore running my jingle business, but I did take one summer off. That was the summer we went up to Connecticut to work on Man of La Mancha.

Rail: And “The Impossible Dream” became one of the biggest hits in musical history.

Leigh: Yes. La Mancha is being performed right now in Poland, Russia, South Korea, and China. There’s going to be one in Brazil soon. So, in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined it being this. In 2015 it’ll be 50 years.

Rail: Were you aware of its originality or universal appeal while you were working on it?

Leigh: Of course not. The reason I did what I did was because it wasn’t going to be a hit! So I could write whatever the hell I wanted to.

Rail: Did you approve of Arthur Hiller’s 1972 film adaptation?

Leigh: No!

Rail: Even with Peter O’Toole playing Don Quixote and Sophia Loren playing Dulcinea?

Leigh: O’Toole, who was so self-involved, couldn’t sing to save his life.

Loren could sing a bit better, but the problem was they took the production outside, because that’s how it gets filmed, whereas in the script of the play the setting is in a prison. Also, Hiller had never done a musical before, so the whole thing was a disaster.

Rail: What about Cry For Us All?Even though you didn’t produce or write the lyrics, you wrote the music for it.

Leigh: Cry For Us All was probably the best thing I ever wrote. Unfortunately, the production just didn’t work.

Rail: Home Sweet Homer was also not a commercial success. How do you account for this, considering Yul Brynner played the lead role as Odysseus?

Leigh: Yul Brynner couldn’t sing, but I wrote music he could manage. Eric Segal was the book writer, and he had not been in the theatre before. And every time we needed a revision of the dialogue Segal was unavailable. He was teaching Greek and Latin at one of the Ivies. We toured for a year and it died a slow death.

Rail: Did that hinder your friendship with Brynner at all?

Leigh: No, on the contrary, it was after that that Brynner asked me to direct The King and I. Yul was doing The King and I for another production company but he was unhappy with them. So at one point he said to me, “I’d love to have you,” and I said, “First of all, I don’t have the rights, they have the rights. Secondly, if you get the rights from them (which we eventually did, for half a million dollars) I would work with you but I don’t want to be your boss. I’m going to be your partner. We’re going to have to own it 50/50.” Then he said, “Would you direct it? ” I said, “I really don’t direct.” But he said, “Look, I really don’t want another guy around, I want you.” After a while I said “Okay, but remember we’re equal partners.” And on the basis of that we had a wonderful relationship until he died in 1985 of lung cancer. Of course, I treated Yul like a star. Every town in which he performed I would send him a case of Château Haut-Brion ’64. And he loved it. I remember when we first started the production he said to me, “How come you’re not giving me notes? You’re giving everyone else notes on what went wrong.” I said, “You’re the king. Don’t do that to me.” He said, “Give it to me, I want to know what you think, please.” “Well, at the end when the kids were being introduced to Anna you do something that kills the end of the scene.” He looks at me and he says, “What?” and I said, “You give the little kid a pat in the tushy at the end and you get a laugh, and that kills your applause at the end of the scene.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “An audience is either owing you, or you owe them. It’s a matter of debt and this is the way a show goes and each scene goes that way. They gave you their appreciation when you gave the kid a pat so you don’t get applause at the end. Don’t pat the tush, you’ll get the applause at the end of the scene.” He tried it the next night; it worked. He said, “I can’t believe it worked so perfectly.”

Rail: How did he look? This revival took place 33 years after the film version.

Leigh: First of all, Yul wasn’t the star in the original stage version. Anna, played by Gertrude Lawrence, was the star of the piece. Yul became the star later in the run. Since I always felt with Russell Bennett’s orchestration the whole thing was too slow, I wanted it more lyrical and faster in tempo. And as a result it worked better and we sold out everywhere.

Rail: Brynner must have been quite ecstatic.

Leigh: Once he said to me, “Suppose I die during one of the performances?” I said, “Well that’s a bonus, but if you can tell me up front that you’re going to die it would be even better, we could charge more!” And Yul said, “How much more?” [Laughs.] And I said, “Lots of people would pay to see you dead! Four times more!” He got a kick out of that. When he married his last wife, Kathy Lee, a young daner from Malaysia, I was best man.

Rail: Cool.

Leigh: When I hit 65 a very good friend of mine said, “You know Mitch, now you should do whatever the hell you want.” I said, “What do you think I’ve been doing for the last 35 years?” [Laughs.] There was always a “next,” thank God. And now my next—at the age of 85—is Jackson 21.

Rail: Tell us more about it. I looked at the website and it seems quite romantic and utopian as a community.

Leigh: I call it a dream village because it is. Just about a year after La Mancha, around ’66 I started buying land, mostly swamp as it turned out. But over the years, I kept accumulating more, which is now about 1,000 acres, 20 percent larger than Central Park. Initially, I had this idea of doing this Shangri-La for artists from every discipline: painting, sculptors, ceramic, dance, film; I also wanted an experimental theater with 350, 400 seats, and so on. The idea is that artists don’t have to worry about rents going up like Chelsea, Williamsburg, Bushwick, or wherever. And I’ll have one area, which is for folks who like to live near the artists. I decided to add a sports complex because it is an ideal combination: mind and body. Over 500 acres will be left virgin, the community will be green. We are consulting with Environmental Defense before we build. The location is terrific: it’s right off the I-95 and right next door to Great Adventure. The deal is, if you’re an artist you have to teach for a few hours a week. You’ll get paid for the teaching but you have to teach as a way to be a part of the community.

Rail: So “The Impossible Dream” is possible?

Leigh: Yes. Before I married Abby I was 43, and I already had three lives. I already had a son, Andy, such a witty guy. Abby changed my life, she is an amazing painter and we have two children. David, the most gifted singer, Eve, a brilliant playwright. All my dreams have in fact come true. It’s hard to imagine a kid who had his start with Benny Goodman and went on to do La Mancha, King and I,and now this dream village. Fortunately, one of the things you learn when you grow up in Brownsville is there’s always going to be obstacles in your life, so how do you get rid of them and make the rest of it go?

Rail: How do you?

Leigh: You have to adapt in life. I adapted thousands of times in order to stay alive. Otherwise you can just say, “Well, they screwed me.” I come from Brownsville, you don’t get screwed that easily, you play a different hand, new cards, and you try something else, because you don’t want to lose. My position is, losing is for the other guy. Not me.

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Phong Bui