With a quarter in his pocket given to him each morning by his mother, he spent his days wandering alone through the streets and parks of the city, loudly humming his favorite classical pieces and hoping, he said, that someone would recognize the music, join in, and walk beside him.
At 13, his brother Louis took him to his first Broadway play, George Bernard Shaw’s “It made a big impression on me,” he said.
“It was a world I knew nothing about, in which living people exchanged ideas and had passions and outlooks that were, in the case of this particular play, sort of upper-class.
He discovered his exuberant gift for performing early, making his stage debut in a third-grade production of as an evil dwarf, startling everyone, he once told me, “with my demented laugh and the violence with which I threw myself into the role.” Other highlights of his career on the P. 39 boards, usually as a heavy, included the Hangman in which inspired him to memorize all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s librettos.
Movies—meaning silent movies—were a big part of my father’s life almost from infancy, and he remembered pretty much every scene from every movie he saw.
Moments after they had been introduced, Lenny, who had been told about my father’s almost freakish knowledge of classical music, dragged him into the dining hall and challenged him to identify a Shostakovich tune, which he played for my father on an upright piano.“Sorry,” my father said. But it’s not Shostakovich.”Lenny leapt up, threw his arms around him, and confessed that he’d tried to trick him by improvising a piece in the style of Shostakovich.
Late into the night, they walked the grounds of the camp, singing, laughing, and weaving the strands of their mutual passions—Stravinsky, Sibelius, Gershwin, Auden, Spender, Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Chaplin, and more, including a moronic novelty song called “I Wish That I’d Been Born in Borneo,” which they’d both known word for word since childhood—into a bond of almost romantic intensity that would connect them, personally and professionally, for the rest of their lives.
I always relished hearing about him as an urbane man-about-town, whose achievements as the co-author of such stage and screen musicals as allowed him to know the best and brightest artists and intellectuals of his time as a fellow member of the aristocracy of success.
But the stories that I most wanted to hear harkened back to the years before all that, charting a trajectory from a childhood of almost Dickensian privation in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan to a series of life-changing friendships that set him, in an ongoing act of self-invention, on a course through the worlds of summer-camp theatricals and Greenwich Village nightclubs to the triumphant opening night of his first Broadway show.
This year would have been my father’s 100th birthday, and it would have made him indecently proud to see it marked by productions of so many of the musicals that he and his partner, Betty Comden, wrote in their 60-year collaboration: a stage adaptation of their 1953 MGM movie, their 1944 musical, about the amorous exploits of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the big city, which introduced the phrase “New York, New York, a helluva town” into the American lexicon and announced the arrival of a new generation in the American musical theater.
was a landmark, the first show by a bunch of bright upstarts—Bernstein, Comden and Green, and Jerome Robbins, all still in their 20s—who would go on, together and apart, to help shape the cultural landscape of the 20th century.
“I was really headed into the toilet, and I became, at my worst, a kind of clown,” he said.