GREENE1.JPGNew York Conservatory pays tribute to Broadway’s Herbert Greene with
THE GREENE TOUCH, Monday, April 28 @ 7:30 p.m.
A special benefit concert spotlighting the Golden Age of Broadway.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Theatre, 120 West 46th Street, Tickets:

Bob Gulack was on hand to chat with Deborah Greene about the works of her musical father.

New York Conservatory presents a concert dedicated to one of the Great White Way’s unsung heroes – Herbert Greene. A shrewd producer, natural conductor and orchestrator, and gifted composer, Greene worked side-by-side with Meredith Willson on The Music Man; Frank Loesser on Most Happy Fella; built the orchestrations behind Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle; and even trained Broadway luminaries like Rex Harrison, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Cook, Robert Preston, Don Ameche, and Judy Holliday.

As a young girl, Deborah Greene sat at the feet of a Golden Age.  Her father, Herbert Greene — himself a singer once sought by Toscanini to perform Beethoven — was famous for his ability to coach people to sing on Broadway.  So, one by one, the great stars of Hollywood, or of the so-called “legitimate” (i.e., non-musical) theater, came to Greene to learn how to perform musicals on the Great White Way: Angela Lansbury, Rex Harrison, Robert Preston, Barbara Cook, Judy Holliday, Rosalind Russell — the list goes on and on.

All these stars had reason to trust Brooklyn-born Herbert Greene.  Beginning his Broadway career by taking over as conductor of Leonard Bernstein’s ON THE TOWN, Greene went on to conduct and do vocal arrangements for Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS, Cole Porter’s SILK STOCKINGS, Julie Styne’s BELLS ARE RINGING, Harold Arlen’s SARATOGA, and Stephen Sondheim’s ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.  It will be seen at once that there were very few top-of-the-line composers, from 1944 to 1964, who failed to take advantage of Herbert Greene’s talents.  And that very impressive resume leaves out the crown jewel of Greene’s career: co-producing, conducting and doing the vocal arrangements for Meredith Willson’s THE MUSIC MAN, the feat for which he won Tonys for both producing and conducting.

Greene’s pupils learned well.  Lansbury has won five Tonys (so far!) — four of them for singing roles.  Harrison’s Henry Higgins became not only one of the most legendary of all Broadway performances, but won him the Oscar for Best Actor (over Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, and Peter Sellers in DR. STRANGELOVE — it was a good year).  Preston and Cook will, of course, be remembered forever as the stars of THE MUSIC MAN, as will Judy Holliday for BELLS ARE RINGING and Rosalind Russell for Bernstein’s WONDERFUL TOWN.

The “Greene Touch,” as it came to be known, brought a special shine to the complete gamut of Broadway material, whether it was a revue of sketches featuring Bert Lahr, like Styne’s TWO ON THE AISLE, or a full-length opera for Broadway, like Loesser’s THE MOST HAPPY FELLA.

But, on top of everything else, Herbert Greene aspired to be a composer of serious concert music, and pursued that career with some success as well: Greene’s Sonata for Cello and Piano has been heard in New York City, and his THE WHITE NOTES, a collection of pieces for piano, received publication.

As a tribute for her father, Deborah Greene is mounting a New York Conservatory concert at 7:30 PM, April 28, at Jacqueline Onassis School Theatre, 120 West 46th St.  The production will be called THE GREENE TOUCH: A TRIBUTE TO HERBERT GREENE AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF BROADWAY.  It is to be directed by Mitch Tebo, and will offer selections both from Greene’s famous Broadway work and from Greene’s original compositions.  Deborah Greene hopes this tribute will be a solid first step toward presenting this material for a substantial run in some other venue. 

Eyewitness to Broadway History

I was lucky enough recently to draw out Deborah Greene about what she saw at firsthand of her father’s world-famous colleagues.  She is a bright and engaging guide to the glory days of Broadway, enthusiastic about sharing glittering anecdotes of her childhood — while at the same time acknowledging that these people, whom she met as family friends, were in many cases so talented as to be somewhat intimidating.  Certainly, they were tough acts to follow.

She recalls being right in the middle of the creative tumult that led to some of Broadway’s greatest masterpieces.  She still remembers, for example, the crucial meeting at which Kermit Bloomgarden (the producer), Meredith Willson (the author of the songs and co-author of the book), Frank Loesser, and Franklin Lacey (co-author of the book) hammered out the plot revisions that would create the story of THE MUSIC MAN as we know it today.  She notes that some of the crucial players — Franklin Lacey, for example — are now largely forgotten; and that some of the credits we take for granted are oversimplifications.  The official bylines list her father, Herbert Greene, as a conductor and vocal arranger, but Dorothy maintains that the actual musical scores prove that Greene was the co-orchestrator with Don Walker on a great variety of projects.

Some of her favorite memories clearly center on Frank Loesser, whom she remembers as both hilarious and affectionate — able without strain to make anyone warm up to him.    It may surprise some to learn that Loesser was not only one of our supreme composer-lyricists (personally, I’d take “Adelaide’s Lament” over virtually any other comedy number), but also a talented cartoonist.  As a special present, Loesser drew four green silhouettes representing Deborah, her parents, and her brother and entitled the sketch (what else?) “The Greenes.”

Loesser, she says, buried inside jokes into his Broadway work, including, in the operatic MOST HAPPY FELLA, a coded reference (“Who’s Pearl?”) to Herbert Greene’s longterm love affair with Lee Remick (Remick’s nickname was “Pearl”).  Herbert Greene, in turn, in his work on ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, was careful to present the title song in as romantic an arrangement as possible — this being Greene’s private “love note” to Remick.

Cole Porter was not only personable and chatty, she reports, but incredibly generous.  Her father mentioned to Porter that it was sometimes hard to compose without hearing the instruments.  The next day, Porter had a large Hammond organ delivered to the Greene house, decorated with a huge red bow.

How Herbert Greene Bluffed His Way to the Top

Her father was clearly a memorable character in his own right.  Deborah Greene confirms that Adolph Green, co-lyricist of ON THE TOWN, offered her dad the chance to take over one of the show’s leading roles.  Herbert Greene turned down the offer, saying he would “ruin” the show if he tried to be a comedian.  What he wanted to do, he said, was conduct the show.  He presented himself — quite falsely — as having a solid background in conducting.  The truth was he had never conducted anything more than a record playing in his own living room.  But Leonard Bernstein gave Greene the chance to conduct ON THE TOWN matinees, liked what he heard, and handed Greene the full-time conducting slot.  The rest is history.

Those who love the barbershop quartet music in THE MUSIC MAN (and who doesn’t?) may be interested to know that Greene sang in his own barbershop quartet long before he got to Broadway.  The original MUSIC MAN barbershop quartet, the “Buffalo Bills”, doubted that any outsider could arrange for them — until they heard Greene’s arrangements and realized the magic they were being offered.  One of the barbershop quartets from THE MUSIC MAN, “It’s You,” will be heard in the tribute show on April 28. So will two original songs her father dedicated to Deborah — one of which features a lyric by Sammy Cahn.

GREENE7.JPGIt’s been a long time since Broadway’s Golden Age, but Deborah Greene has never really left it behind.  She went on to study composition at Juilliard, and has continued her father’s tradition of coaching so-called “non-singers” to express themselves in song.  The proceeds of the April 28 tribute will go to benefit the New York Conservatory.  Tickets:

ROBERT GULACK is the author of numerous plays, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE. All have been performed in NYC.