The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue

Impossible Dream Made Possible
FOR MITCH LEIGH (1928 – 2014)

Portrait of Mitch Leigh. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Mitch Leigh. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

The first time I met Mitch 10 years ago I was utterly intimidated by him, mostly because I didn’t know what to make of him, even though I knew he was a legend. The first musical that I ever saw, which my aunt took me to in Philadelphia, was The King and I and of course I knew the Man of La Mancha soon after I came to New York. But instead of seeing the maestro wearing a black suit, white vest, and bow tie like Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, or other great composers and speaking professorially, which is what I expected, Mitch (always) wore a deep bluish-black velour track suit and talked like the God Father.

I remember he looked at me straight in the eye with an unusual yet penetrating look that I had never encountered before. It was as if all of my previous pretenses or preconceived ideas about the notion of the “self” and how it relates to the “world” had no place in my being. It didn’t take that long for me to realize two extraordinary things about Mitch: one, this is a person who is completely comfortable under his own skin. Two, this is a person who doesn’t want to waste his time, especially on things that didn’t interest him. (This perception was of course applied to the people whom he wanted to be friends with in his life.) As far as I was concerned, Mitch could be half-naked like Picasso—we all notice on some occasions Picasso would only wear shorts and nothing else, posing in front of his paintings in the studio or painting at night for the camera in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film The Mystery of Picasso, but none of us would ever bother to think of the imperfection of his physical appearance. I realized actually that what Mitch and Picasso have in common is the machismo benevolence that nurtures and protects creative spirits from dogma and unproductive self-doubts. I remember thinking how unique and satisfying it must be to have those two attributes! I realized what Mitch taught me essentially was that the world is as you choose to make it, exactly the way artists create works of art. The whole emphasis of the entire process is invention, creation, making something out of nothing. Mitch was an artist who was highly aware of the past, but never allowed nostalgia to dictate what he wanted to accomplish in his life. I love Mitch’s favorite word: “NEXT.”

Taking references loosely from my last interview with Mitch on behalf of his 85th birthday a year ago, I wrote the following poem as Mitch’s imaginary self-portrait:

It was hard to tell who they were when they were all children
In every street corner in Brownsville, Brooklyn

It was hard to tell before the “worlds of our fathers” Irwin Michnick along with Joseph Papp, Meyer Schapiro, Danny Kaye, and Mel Brooks
From Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and other members of the
“Brownsville Boys.”

It was hard to tell when my father said to me when I was 12:
“The last thing I’d want you to be is
Either a rabbi or a musician.

It was easy to tell how excited I was from taking
My clarinet lesson from Mr. Aaronson.

It was easy to understand how Meyer Lansky
Would have been the most successful head of General Motors
If he wasn’t a gangster.

It was easy to relate to Paul Hindemith
Who believed music should be applied to every use
Including music for going to the “john.”

It was easy to write Jingles even when in
My imagination I was sitting on Duchamp’s famous urinal.

It was easy to receive praises for my other Jingles. True, but
It was hard to work with Dale Wasserman.

It was easy to write Man of La Mancha
It was hard to work with Arthur Hiller in his 1972 film adaptation.

It was hard to listen to Peter O’Toole
Who was so self-involved he couldn’t sing to save his life.

It was easy to work with Yul Brynner
Who I treated like a star,
And he was a star.

It was easy when I turned 65 a very good friend of mine said, “You know Mitch, now you should do whatever the hell you want.” I said, “What do you think I’ve been doing for the last 35 years?”

It was easy when a friend asked me is “The Impossible Dream” possible?

I said it was hard to imagine a kid who had studied with Mr. Aaronson
Went on to do La Mancha, King and I, have a witty son Andy from my first marriage. Married to Abby an amazing painter and we have two children. David, the most gifted singer, Eve, a brilliant playwright, and my dream village Jackson 21. All my dreams have in fact come true.

It was easy to recite a proverb that says,
“To live in a long tube, be thin
To live in a barrel, be round.”

I said it wasn’t that hard to adapt in order to stay alive.
It was easy rather than hard because
My father believed that you don’t just live for food and clothing—you had to have other things in your life—that’s culture, that’s “cool-tour,”

It’s like for milk to become yogurt
It needs “cool-tour.”

Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

All Issues