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.
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.
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.
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.
Representative Men (Jay Landesman, Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and Gershon Legman)) by John Clellan Holmes
Landesmania by Phillip Trevena
Jay Landesman autobiographies: