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Book Review: Remembering the Legendary Lyrics of John Latouche

Oxford University Press

If you go through life with a name like John Latouche, you'd better be talented.

Luckily, John Treville Latouche (1914-1956) was immensely talented. He made his name as the go-to guy for witty, biting lyrics, inspiring Duke Ellington, Jerome Moross, Vernon Duke and Leonard Bernstein.

His circle in New York and Vermont included all the above, along with John Cage, Gore Vidal, Dawn Powell, Carson McCullers and Virgil Thomson. Latouche was a light on and off Broadway, in cabarets and wherever wit was prized as much as art. 

He'd remain forgotten today, except for a thrilling and exhaustive new biography by Howard Pollack, The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist's Life and Work.

Thrilling because Latouche, with Moross, wrote a great Broadway "what if" — The Golden Apple, considered the first thorough composed show on the Rialto, long before Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I say "what if" because The Golden Apple, in the Broadway history books for its excellence, was a flop, as were most of Latouche's shows in their initial runs. But Kaye Ballard, in the original cast, introduced "Lazy Afternoon." What's not to love?

Thrilling because Latouche ("Touchey") collaborated on the original production of Candide and managed to stand up to both Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein. Thrilling because Cabin in the Sky was an early Latouche project with Vernon Duke. Ethel Waters sang their hit "Taking a Chance on Love."

Thrilling because Latouche, who was gay and lived during the first half of the 20th century, penned the most patriotic hymn since the "Star Spangled Banner" — "Ballad for Americans," written for Paul Robeson.

I will always love Latouche for one of his final projects, his libretto for Douglas Moore's opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. This has beautiful music and enough of an emotional wallop to defy sentimentality.

Exhaustive because Pollack, to make up for the years of neglect of "Touchey's" talents, dots every I and includes every date, note and synopsis of every show that came within two miles of Latouche during his brief but action-packed life.

The Ballad of John Latouche is a historical and sociological document more than a show-biz biography, but that needn't discourage a hungry reader. It's a book about America in the first half of the 20th century, the best of our creative talents and a terrific lyricist who wrote many of his best lines in the bathtub.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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