Jay Landesman has made his final exit

Jay Landesman, cultural original, has died at 91

Irving “Jay” Landesman, whose revolutionary musical played for less than a month on Broadway but set a template for The Fantasticks and other small-orchestra musicals, died Sunday morning at his home in London.

Jay Landesman

The musical was called The Nervous Set, about the beginnings of the Beat Generation, which, among its other novel features, featured a 4 piece jazz combo, often onstage, and a relentlessly downbeat ending. The Nervous Set had a long and successful run in Landesman’s native St. Louis before playing for a disappointing twenty-three performances on Broadway in 1959. While the play did not catch fire with Broadway audiences, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times noted “the point of view is sharp in The Nervous Set, which opened at Henry Miller’s last evening. In both words and music it has a shrewd slant on contemporary attitudes,” and the Daily News said it was “the most brilliant, sophisticated, witty and completely novel production of the past decade.” The Nervous Set marked the Broadway debut of film and television star Larry Hagman (he played a character based on Allan Ginsberg.)

The Nervous Set also marked the beginning of an enormously fruitful collaboration between Landesman’s lyricist wife, the former Fran Deitsch, and the late musician Tommy Wolf. The Fran Landesman/Tommy Wolf song, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” has become a jazz classic. (To hear Ella Fitzgerald sing this song, go here.) Fran Landesman has written for many composers including Steve Allen and continues to write with Simon Wallace and perform.

The Nervous Set was based on Landesman’s experiences as the founder of a journal called “Neurotica”, which was the first periodical to consistently publish the writings of the early Beats. Neurotica featured some of the early works of Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan, and Jack Kerouac.  Landesman said that his journal was “a literary exposition, defense, and correlation of the problems and personalities that in our culture are defined as ‘neurotic’…We are interested in exploring the creativeness of this man who has been forced to live underground.” Neurotica was in frequent conflict with the law. The Post Office banned the fifth issue because it contained the word “fuck” and eventually bankrupted the publication over the final issue, which had a lengthy article by Landesman’s collaborator Gershon Legman about “the Castration Complex.” (You can read more about Neurotica in this excellent short article.) Landesman’s legendary battles with Legman (who went on to win fame as an exhaustive compiler of ribald limericks) formed much of the basis of The Nervous Set.

Outside their home in the 70s: Fran Landesman, Jay Landesman with Jackie Caine (Photo: FranLandesman.com)

Jay Landesman, along with his brother, Fred, ran The Crystal Palace in St. Louis. The Crystal Palace was a dazzling combination of saloon and 300-seat Theater; Jay Landesman’s bookings included Second City icon Del Close (who went on to make his Broadway debut playing the Legman figure in The Nervous Set), Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Barbra Streisand, before they achieved international fame.

In time for the emergence of ‘Swinging London’, the underground of the 60’s, Landesman moved his family to London’s Islington neighborhood. The brownstone quickly became the gathering spot for hipsters, musicians, writers and entertainers. In his biography “Landesmania”, Phillip Trevena terms him the Soho Gentleman Bohemian, and Norman Mailer, speaking of the Beat generation, wrote that Jay and Fran “could be accused of starting it all. By God, they were there at the beginning.”

Recently, NEA President Rocco Landesman, nephew of Jay Landesman, speaking at Arena Stage to a gathering of theatre professional about the vicissitudes of a life in theatre read a line from his uncle’s calling card: “I put the sting in success and the fun in failure.”  A fitting exit line to a life well lived.

In addition to Fran Landesman, Jay Landesman is survived by his sons Cosmo Landesman, a critic and journalist, and Miles Davis Landesman, a musician.

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Thanks to Tim Treanor for his contributions to this article.

In 2006, Tim and Lorraine Treanor worked with Jay Landesman on a new book for the musical The Nervous Set.  In 2007, Lorraine Treanor produced Queen of the Bohemian Dream, a revue of contemporary Fran Landesman songs written with Simon Wallace at Capital Fringe.

Related:

Representative Men (Jay Landesman, Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and Gershon Legman)) by John Clellan Holmes

Neurotica

Landesmania by Phillip Trevena

Jay Landesman autobiographies:

Rebel Without Applause
Jaywalking
Tales of a Cultural Conduit and The Nervous Set

London’s The Guardian here covers his contributions to the world of publishing, organic foods, and London’s club life.

Comments

  1. Robert O'Toole says:

    I am very fond of that score. After reading about how small of a show it was, I’m amazed that it hasn’t been given at least a concert staging. And I wish that I could find the score somewhere.

  2. This week, we heard from Arlene Corwin, writing from Sweden, who was the original Jan, in The Nervous Set in St. Louis.

    “I had the female lead in The Nervous Set when it opened and played (to standing room only) in St Louis.  I had the privilege of being the first live person to sing Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most and Ballad of The Sad Young Men.”

    She went on to play Joan in the Broadway version.

    “  I’m a New Yorker, which is where I met Jay who’d come to Manhattan to audition girls for this ‘new show’ that he’d written.  I played and sang for him and voila, was in.  I remember it so well.  I sang Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year”.

    Ever optimistic, Jay repeatedly spoke about reviving The Nervous Set.  it really was his baby,

    The last time I saw him he was jauntily walking along near his home in London, hat cocked, cane in hand.  That is the way I will remember him.”

  3. Wayne Renardson says:

    Robert O’Toole says:
    February 27, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    RO> I am very fond of that score. After reading about how small of a show it was, I’m amazed that it hasn’t been given at least a concert staging. And I wish that I could find the score somewhere.
    Jazz musicians are familiar with charts for “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and it can be found in Chuck Sher’s “New Real Book” Volume II, the older Real Books Vol 2 & 3, and The Jazz Fake Book.
    “The Ballad OF The Sad Young Men” is more difficult but it can be found in “The Broadway Fake Book.” 
    If you would like a copy of these charts, I could probably be talked into sending you a copy, strictly for educational purposes, of course:) .
     
    Wayne Renardson
    Nashville, TN 37204
     

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