Born into poverty in Richmond, Virginia, John Latouche (1914-1956) even as a youth established himself as both a rascal and a genius. After dropping out of Columbia his sophomore year (but not before scandalizing the university with his risqué lyrics to the school’s 1935 Varsity Show, Flair-Flair: The Idol of Paree), he won a coterie of devoted admirers among New York’s artistic elite for his witty and suggestive cabaret songs. In 1939, working with composer Earl Robinson, he captured the admiration of a much wider public with his cantata on American history, Ballad for Americans, popularized over the radio and in concert especially by the outstanding African-American bass Paul Robeson, but others as well, including Bing Crosby.
Latouche went on to distinguish himself as a lyricist, book writer, and librettist for the musical stage. He wrote three musicals with composer Vernon Duke, including Cabin in the Sky (1940) an all-black fable starring Ethel Waters, and Banjo Eyes (1941), a vehicle for comedian Eddie Cantor’s return to Broadway; Rhapsody (1944) and Polonaise (1945), two period operettas with European settings based on the music of Fritz Kreisler and Frédéric Chopin, respectively; Beggar’s Holiday (1946), an interracial update of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera with Duke Ellington; two operas—Ballet Ballads (1948) and The Golden Apple (1954)—with Jerome Moross; the Faustian western, The Happy Dollar (1954), with William Friml, son of operetta composer Rudolf Friml; another musical, The Vamp (1955), for his friend, comedian Carol Channing, with music by black composer James Mundy; and the operetta Candide (1956) with Leonard Bernstein. (The latter showed less patience with the temperamental Latouche than others, and eventually hired poet Richard Wilbur in his stead, although some Latouche lyrics survived the transition; Latouche similarly exasperated Kurt Weill, who aborted their fledgling attempt at a collaboration for choreographer Ruth Page.) Meanwhile, Latouche composed songs for two avant-garde films by the German-American director Hans Richter, and started producing his own independent shorts, including Maya Deren’s last film, The Very Eye of Night (1956). Latouche’s career ended on a high note with his libretto for Douglas Moore’s now classic opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956). Exactly a month after the work’s premiere in Central City, Colorado, the lyricist died of a heart attack (“nourished,” commented his friend Gore Vidal, “by too much brandy and too many cigarettes”) in his country home in Calais, Vermont, at the age of forty-one.
As can be seen, Latouche’s musical collaborators consisted to a striking degree of sophisticated and highly skilled composers who aimed, nonetheless, for success on the popular stage, and who recognized him as a good match, at least from an artistic point of view. Duke Ellington, Vernon Duke, and Douglas Moore all referred to him as a “genius.” Bernstein called him a “whiz lyricist.” Gore Vidal, who collaborated with Latouche on movie scenarios, and who celebrated him in his historical novel The Golden Age (2000), thought him “probably the best lyricist in the history of the American musical.”
Among other virtues, Latouche had a keenly musical ear. If working side by side with composers, or setting their music to words, he knew, for instance, how to pen a phrase to neatly suit a dissonant note or an interesting modulation. But even if writing in advance of the music, his lyrics lent themselves beautifully to the sung voice. His deft command of internal and polysyllabic rhyming elicited frequent comparisons with Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter—although who else would have rhymed “amoeba” with “Ich liebe”? Moreover, he could shape large poetic structures that accommodated the objectives of Robinson, Moross, Bernstein, Moore, and other composers aiming to transcend the limits of popular song form. Finally, he imaginatively sought to integrate the various arts in pursuit of a novel sort of integrated lyric theater. (Stephen Sondheim, although not much of a fan, alluded to this when he stated that Latouche had “a large vision of what musical theater could be.”) During this mid-century period, with serious opera composers writing for Broadway and songwriters embarking on dramatically ambitious work, Latouche proved a highly sought-after collaborator.
As an example of his art, a humorous number would be most representative, but Latouche had also a sensitive poetic side, as in the song “Lazy Afternoon” from Jerome Moross’s The Golden Apple, introduced on Broadway by Kaye Ballard, but later recorded by Tony Bennett, Marlene Dietrich, Barbra Streisand, and many others. Or consider the “Silver Song” from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, all the more uncharacteristic in its evocation of the Old West, but for this very reason indicative of Latouche’s versatility. Based on a true historical saga, the opera tells the story of Horace Tabor, a blustery Colorado silver king who leaves his wife of many years for a young, blue-eyed blonde nicknamed Baby Doe; widely repudiated by society as a gold-digger and homewrecker, Baby Doe proves, especially after her husband’s tragic fall from wealth and power, deeply and inspiringly devoted to him. During their wedding reception that closes the opera’s first act, after witnessing a tense spat between her husband, violent in his support of silver as currency as against the gold standard (a big issue in the late nineteenth century), and Washington sophisticates who realize that silver has had its day, Baby Doe defuses the situation by coming to her husband’s defense in a way that charms one and all. Here is the celebrated American soprano Beverly Sills singing this “Silver Song” in a recording featuring members of the New York City Opera, conducted by Emerson Buckley. Note among other felicities Latouche’s mellifluous use of “orb,” “adore,” “ore,” and “core” as the aria nears its end.
Baby Doe: [Please, gentlemen, please.]
Gold is a fine thing.
For those who admire it.
Gold is like the sun
But I am a child
Of the moon, and silver
Is the metal of the moon.
Secret-smiler, wrapped in wonder,
Floating in her cloudy magic,
’Tis the moon that mints her silver
In the deeps of darkened earth.
All that’s glowing, cool, and tender
Has the feel of silver in it—
Silver in an infant’s laughter
Silver on the sage’s brow
Silver in a moonlit river
Echoes the silver orb above.
I am a child of the moon
Will adore her element
Dreaming as I watch it gleam.
I am mining heavenly ore—
Gold is the sun, but silver, silver
Lies hidden in the core of dreams—
Featured image: “Composer’s score for Don Giovanni” by Liza. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.