My Concert with a Ghost Named Wally

Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity! So begins the book of Ecclesiastes about the futility of all human endeavors doomed to rust and dust. My reaction? Get over it, Ecclesiastes. You're whining and I don't believe it, at least the part that suggests that all human accomplishments are futile since they are destined to be forgotten. What the prophets leave out is the joy of our work; the time spent doing what we most love to do if we're lucky, work that is often the greatest reward we will ever know in life, aside from love, for the pleasure of work is worth all our time and effort, despite its inevitably dusty outcome. Our work may not last but what does last? The Mona Lisa and some Gershwin tunes? After that, who can say? Reader alert: What follows is no biblical discussion, but a plug for a concert I am involved in next Tuesday.

On Tuesday, April 29th, at 6PM, some amazing actor/singers will be performing some twenty songs that I wrote for two musicals with the late composer Wally Harper. This is one of the Songbook series at the Donnell Library theatre in New York City under the direction of John Zndisarc. It's a free concert, open to the public on a first come first seated basis, and the performers are among the finest of our New York theatre including Penny Fuller, Malcolm Gets, Marcus Neville, Christianne Tisdale, Terry Burrell, Lorna Hampson, Natalie Veneita Balcon, and Kendrick Jones. It promises to be the best time I've had in awhile, short of my taking orders from my bossy, brilliant, musical, soon to be three year old grand-daughter.

Most of the singers at this concert are performing as a tribute to Wally Harper, a much loved man of the musical theatre and little known outside of it; one who was remarkable for the generosity of his talents and his life. Wally's surviving life partner, Allan Gruet will be there to represent him although I know that Wally's ghost will be haunting that theatre Tuesday evening, puffing on a Lucky Strike, sprinkling ash where he shouldn't, and giggling at some lewd and irreverent thought that just crossed his capacious mind, a thought that he can't wait to share with me.

I came late to song writing, and it was Wally who brought me there. Although I had written the books for musicals on Broadway and for regional theatres, I wanted to write lyrics for my own shows, and I was looking for a composer who could help me fashion my lyrics into something worth singing. Wally Harper's name was suggested by knowledgeable theatre friends; I phoned him, and he came to my house for a meeting. And what a meeting that was.

Standing before me was a man who combined the ergonomic elegance of Fred Astaire with the animated optimism of Disney's Goofy. Forget the comparisons, Wally Harper was simply, ineluctably Wally Harper, a child of the rust belt Middle West, growing up in post war America with an oversized talent for music housed in a scrawny body, the kind of gifted young man who makes the best kind of New York sophisticate by recreating himself, and somehow making the life he wanted happen by talent, charm and willpower. I listened to some fine songs he had written as he assured me that we would make a great song writing team. My wife asked him why he thought that was likely to happen. Wally replied, "It takes a homosexual like me and a Jew like Sherman to write a good musical." I replied that I wasn't much of a Jew. He responded, "Don't worry about that Sherman; I'm one hell of a homosexual." It was our first laugh together.

Wally lived his life without excuses or regrets, not always wisely, but openly. His other personal qualities included being a reckless speed demon driver, a world class pianist, a gifted bridge-player, a spectacular Sunday Times cross-word puzzle solver, a master chef, a genius voice teacher, and an easy mark for out of luck friends. More important for me, he became my friend/collaborator/mentor, a trial, a curse and a comfort; all mixed up in one exasperating person whom you could not trust with a secret, but whom you could trust with your life.

We completed two musicals in the decade that followed our first meeting. The first was a retro-musical comedy romp set against the 1940 New York World's Fair called This Fair World which had its premiere in 2000 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival as Say Yes! This musical was about the greed of upper crust society, featuring a girl reporter from an ordinary family trying to get by in a hardscrabble Depression era world. Best of all it was an unabashed love story. Our other musical, the last we were to write together, was Josephine Tonight about the early life of Josephine Baker, a woman whose life began in the Jim Crow South and who migrated to black vaudeville, moving on to Harlem in the twenties and ending with her first and most spectacular triumph in Paris. The Josephine show with its bluesy score had the great success we had long hoped for in its Chicago premiere; sadly it was a success that Wally did not live to see. It is for this reason, to show Wally's remarkable musical work, together with my own vanity of vanities that I agreed to put together this library concert next Tuesday with the invaluable help of Allan, John, our volunteer cast, and our musical director Michael Lavine.

And so come next Tuesday, two hundred fifty New Yorkers will have a chance to experience some of the delight that Wally brought into my life, something first known by the audiences who saw him perform with the legendary Barbara Cook in concert and in cabaret. Only this time his talents will be showcased as a composer.

Yes, as the prophets wrote, all our hopes, our loves, our friendships and achievements may be transitory and end as dust. Our human work may seem vain to some old nay saying nag of a prophet, but take it from me there's nothing wrong with a little vanity in one's work or in one's life when it brings you joy, no matter how temporal it may be. And no joy quite beats writing a good song with a great friend like Wally Harper.

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