“The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work” by Howard Pollack— A Short But Bountiful Life

Pollack, Howard. “The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work”, Oxford University Press, 2018.

A Short But Bountiful Life

Amos Lassen

I love the theater or go as often as I can but I must be honest here. The name John Latouche meant nothing to me before I read this biography and discovered that he ad written some of my favorite show tunes. I have since begun a search for all that the did that I know nothing about. I should have recognized his name from having listened to “Candide” and “The Golden Apple” many times but for some reason I did not make the connection.

Born into a poor Virginia family, John Treville Latouche had a short life (1914-56) yet made a profound mark on America’s musical theater as a lyricist, book writer, and librettist. “The wit and skill of his lyrics elicited comparisons with the likes of Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter, but he had too, noted Stephen Sondheim, ‘a large vision of what musical theater could be,’ and he proved especially venturesome in helping to develop a lyric theater that innovatively combined music, word, dance, and costume and set design.” Many of his compositions, while perhaps not commonly known are considered high points in the history of American musical theater.

Duke Ellington said that Latouche was “A great American genius”. While in his early 20s, Latouche gained the attention with his cantata for soloist and chorus, “Ballad for Americans” (1939), with music by Earl Robinson. He was also responsible for the all-black musical fable, “Cabin in the Sky” (1940), an interracial updating of John Gay’s classic, The “Beggar’s Opera” which took the new name of Beggar’s Holiday (1946). He wrote two acclaimed Broadway operas with Jerome Moross: “Ballet Ballads” (1948) and “The Golden Apple” (1954); one of the most enduring operas in the American canon, “The Ballad of Baby Doe” (1956), with Douglas Moore; and the operetta “Candide” (1956), with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman. He also wrote cabaret songs and became involved in documentary and avant-garde film as well as translated poetry and adapted plays.

He was known all over Manhattan and was a celebrated raconteur and host and the names of his friends reads like a Who’s Who— Paul and Jane Bowles (whom he introduced to each other), Yul Brynner, John Cage, Jack Kerouac, Frederick Kiesler, Carson McCullers, Frank O’Hara, Dawn Powell, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams and many others. He seemed to be the draw that brought all these people together. We learn that people were drawn to him not only because of his brilliant mind but also because of his “joie de vivre” and because they loved his work.

This book draws widely on archival collections both at home and abroad and these include Latouche’s diaries and the papers of Bernstein, Ellington, Moore, Moross giving us for the first time a look at the man and his work. This is also the first book that looks at Latouche’s bouts with drinking. Latouche’s lyrics were often characterized by wit and satire just as his life had been.

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