THE BLOG

Lenny Leibowitz: The Weird and Wonderful Musical Virtuoso Who Became a Theatrical Visionary

10/22/2012 09:37 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2012
  • Myra Chanin Author; aka 'Mother Wonderful'; Radio/TV Personality, Former Producer, 'The Joey Reynolds Show'

Lenny Leibowitz, Marvell Rep's Marvellous [sic] Artistic Director/Co-Founder is a born-and-bred-around Philadelphian whose bold, City of Brotherly Love beginnings are attracting attention in the location stolen by sharp traders from the original natives with bright colored beads. So what else is new?

A nice suburban lad, Lenny spent his formative years practicing piano concertos. He made his musical debut at the age 16 -- performing the Mendelsohn G Minor Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Conductor William Smith. Lenny gave up his dreams of concert hall glory shortly thereafter when he realized a lifetime of practice, practice, practice was too isolating an existence for him. When he was 19, and attending Columbia University, he discovered a communal match for his artistic ambitions in theater -- with a lowercase "t." Columbia's then very informal drama department gave Lenny and his ragtag group of self-taught actors enough leeway to create and perform whatever they wanted in non-traditional venues, including the Quad. "It made us self-reliant and gave us the opportunity to discover what we liked."

Next came a journeyman apprenticeship at other artistically ambitious new companies, including Philadelphia's Arden Theater followed by a five-year stint in Evansville, Ind., at the New Harmony Regional Theater Company, where he met Marvell Rep's Co-Founding Managing Director Amy Estes. At New Harmony they presented adventurous material like Nora, an almost unknown play by Ingmar Bergman, and Othello and Hamlet in rotating repertory performed by a mix of nearby university students and New York Artist Equity members. Ticket sales? Subscribers supported productions that obviously filled an intellectual need in the community. Lenny's New Harmony experiences supplied the prototype for the modus operandi now in play at Marvell Rep -- the only Off-Broadway rotating repertory company devoted exclusively to producing new and enduring plays and musicals of integrity, power and beauty.

Marvell's current season consists of two what-else-but-burned-and/or-banned classics: to wit, Franz Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, which supplied the plot for the recent Tony-winning musical and whose productions were often shut down as a result of public outrage, and Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, whose 1923 Broadway producers were thrown in jail on obscenity charges.

Spring's Awakening was self-published in 1891 when Wedekind was 23, barely removed from his own state of hormonized teenage sexual confusion in a time when mothers insisted that storks delivered infants -- hardly a farfetched concept when a stork's beak is an obvious phallic symbol. Spring's Awakening's once shocking scenes of individual and communal masturbation seem undeserving of so much notoriety and attention in a world awash in pornography. Lenny's respect for the integrity of an author's words sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the redundant scenes could have been cut. The young men who play the schoolboys are generally moving, particularly the Melchior portrayed by Guiseppe Bausilio -- a 15-year-old stardom-bound former Billy Elliott -- who is just too smart, skeptical and outspoken to avoid a reformatory stay. Lizzy DeClement plays Wendla, the object of Melchoir's lust with radiant innocence.

As for God of Vengeance, a sexy Jewish soap opera, it portrays the conflicting passions of Yankl, a Jewish brothel owner, and Rivkele, his so-far-so-good daughter. He wants her to remain pure enough to sleep with the torah scroll he commissioned for her, marry a rabbi and lead a respectable married life. She -- oy vey! -- lusts after one of Yankl's hookers, a hook that hooked my respectable companion, who loved the production as, I have to admit, did I. Sam Tsoutsouvas, who last season starred in Marvell Rep's Professor Bernhardi, played Yankl with a Paul Muni-ish 1937 Warner Brothers fervor, hoping that a just God would punish him for his misdeeds rather than punishing his daughter. Battling for a respectable life for one's only child proves to be an impossible feat especially when one's home is in a house.

Both plays will be performed in repertory until November 4th at TBG Theater at 312 W. 36th St.

Now in his early 40s, Lenny's only regret is, "I wish I had started Marvell Rep 10 years ago when I had more energy." Those years between gave him maturity, patience and wisdom. Incidentally, Lenny never gave up the piano just the dream of fame that accompanied it. He plays more than ever now and still takes lessons from his original teacher.