Lyricist Fran Landesman started with “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and the Broadway musical The Nervous Set. Then turned her life into songs. Here’s how our lives intersected.
“What was it like working with Steve Allen?” I asked. The woman sitting across from me was used to interviews; the press had been visiting her Duncan Terrace flat since she and her husband moved to London in the 60s. But they were usually focused on the Landesman’s somewhat scandalous lifestyle. “Why would you want to know that?” she answered, with more than a bit of edge to her voice. I rather blundered my way through explaining that as a child I heard Steve Allen sing one of his songs on television. I then sang her the small snatch of it that I’d remembered for nearly fifty years.
“Would you dance with a man
Who used to be handsome,
Used to be dashing,
Used to be brave.”
She drew herself up, and said “I don’t suppose you ever bothered to find out who wrote the lyrics?”
Stunned, I blurted out “Then you are the woman I’ve been looking for all my life!” Recovering, I saw a faint smile creep across the face of the Queen of the Bohemian Dream. And that was my first meeting with the great poet/lyricist Fran Landesman.
And it was her lyric to “The Man Who Used to Be”.
I am telling you this because Fran Landesman, at the age of 83, performed to a crowd of fans on Thursday night, worked out her latest lyrics with her writing partner Simon Wallace Friday afternoon, then quietly left the planet on Saturday, July 23, 2011, dying peacefully in her sleep.
She was the greatest lyricist you never heard of.
Her songs were drawn from her life, and so I’ll let her lyrics guide the telling of her story.
“As the lights are changing and the traffic stalls
Someone’s star is rising as another falls
There are shining towers, there are breathless views,
There are laughs and squalor
There are sights that bruise.”
– “In a New York Minute”
Fran Deitsch was not destined to be a songwriter. She was an extraordinarily bright child, and her father, a wealthy New York dress manufacturer, hoped that she would follow into the family business. He enrolled her in the Fashion Institute of Technology, and had it not been for a certain gentleman she encountered in the late forties in Greenwich Village, she might have made her mark in an entirely different field.
The gentleman’s name was Jay Landesman.
Jay was also, in his own way, a remarkable man, and the product of a remarkable family. He inherited a share of the family antique business, but he could sing, act, dance, write – and edit: he founded an extraordinary magazine called Neurotica, which gave first voice to writers like Marshall McLuhan, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. He collaborated on his magazine with a wild man named Gershorn Legman, who eventually became the world’s foremost authority on dirty limericks. Jay survived them all, dying this February at the age of 91.
When Neurotica finally died of unnatural causes (the Post Office was offended by the naughty words, and would not deliver it) Jay decided to return home to St. Louis and open up the Crystal Palace, a gorgeous food-and-entertainment nightclub. Artists like Barbra Streisand, Del Close, Woody Allen plied their trades at the Crystal Palace long before anybody in New York had heard of them. Lenny Bruce and the Smothers Brothers were regulars.
Spring this year has got me feeling
Like a horse that never left the post
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling
Spring can really hang you up the most.
– “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”
Another person who plied his trade at the Crystal Palace was the brilliant musician Tommy Wolf, who was the regular pianist for the place. The story goes that one day, the young Fran reached into her pocket and handed him a poem called “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”. It was her hipster version of that part of T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Lands” which begins “April is the cruelest month”.
Wolf set it to music. It was an immediate sensation. Ella Fitzgerald sang it. So did Streisand. So did Chaka Kahn and Rickie Lee Jones. And Bette Midler. And a bunch of other people who are brilliant, but less well known.
Fran and Tommy Wolf collaborated on dozens of other songs. “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” (here is the Shirley Bassey version). And then “Night People”. And then “The Stars Have Blown My Way”.
And then they had a musical.
Jay put together a libretto based on his experience with Neurotica and, of course, falling in love with Fran in Greenwich Village. The trio, with the help of Theodore J. Flicker, birthed The Nervous Set. The Crystal Palace was the perfect setting for it: through Jay’s management, they had already been prepared for new and different – and weird – stuff. Like a musical that had a four-piece orchestra, instead of the traditional nineteen. And where the musicians would wander onto the stage and jam with the characters. And where the protagonist committed suicide in the end.
The Nervous Set was a marvelous success among the hip set in St. Louis and in 1959 it went to Broadway. But despite some good reviews (The New York Daily News called the show “the most brilliant, sophisticated, witty and completely novel production of the past decade.”) and some wonderful talent – Larry Hagman made his Broadway debut as a character based on Ginsberg, and the great Del Close played a character based on Legman, the show closed after twenty-three performances.
The Nervous Set may have been too much for New York. But for some of us, it opened up the world of theater in a way that it had never been opened up before.
Five years after The Nervous Set closed, I was working the Boston coffeeshop circuit as a folk singer (and playing jazz piano in an after-hours club and working as a bookkeeper – like most people trying to make it then and now) when I heard a rendition of “Spring.” I reacted pretty much as you might have expected. I began performing it. Then bought the cast album and performed some of those songs as well. I was in love.
But Fran, embittered by The Nervous Set‘s commercial failure, had fallen out of love with the theater, and the country. She, Jay and their two children moved to the West End of London.
I can sleep the day away
And it won’t cost too much sorrow
So tonight this cat will play
He’s got a small day tomorrow.
- “Small Day Tomorrow” set to music by Bob Dorough
The years passed. Tommy Wolf, sadly, died young and Fran thereafter collaborated with nearly a dozen composers, including Bob Dorough, Pat Smythe, Steve Allen, Georgie Fame, Tom Springfield, Richard Rodney Bennett and Dudley Moore.
“With Fran Landesman, the lyric came first; and it came in perfect shape, crying for a melody. The composer’s job couldn’t have been easier for those privileged few of us who wrote those melodies,” Bob Dorough wrote to me. “Her songs will live on, rising on the ‘winds of heaven,’ and reaching all the ‘sad young men.’… I shall miss that lady mightily.”
“All Fran’s lyrics are deep, literate and clever,” said Shepley Metcalf, an artist who frequently performed Fran’s work. “Having said that, at the same time her themes are often basic, practical and very human, wrapped in exquisite humor and poetry.”
This could also describe her life with Jay in London. They were fabulously glamorous, eccentric, exotic, liberated – catnip to their younger son, Miles Davis, but horrifying to their older son Cosmo, who became a well-known London journalist. Cosmo is – well, you remember the Michael J. Fox character in “Family Ties”? In his book “Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me” Cosmo called his parents “two loud, middle-aged Bohemians in the land of the stiff upper lip.”
The years passed for me too, but not as glamorously. I would have loved to have become a performer, but I had not an ounce of Fran’s talent. I moved to Chicago where I drifted from one field to another – writing computer code in the early days of Fortran, selling commercial insurance, then promotional products. For a few glorious years, I produced theatre and music in Chicago. I remarried and moved to the Washington area with my husband, Tim. For a while I worked for the boxer Mike Tyson and his wife, Dr. Monica Tyson, helping to market his line of clothing online. Ahead, I was to become publisher of this website.
But I never forgot about The Nervous Set.
I never forgot Tommy Wolf’s soaring, haunting music, or the insight in Fran’s brilliant lyrics. I never forgot the bold way the story challenged the conventions of musical theatre. And I never forgot the way that it thrust the Beats and the hipsters of the fifties onto center stage.
Was that important? I think so. Every artist who today writes poetry free of an iambic straightjacket, every playwright whose dialogue crackles with the sometimes inelegant patois of the street; every actor who has rejected a mannered and “actorly” style in favor of authenticity; every hip-hop and slam poet must in justice give a passing nod to these men and women who laughed heroically in the face of post-war conformity.
So I had a crazy thought: why not see if I could revive The Nervous Set? And then I did a crazy thing: I found out where Jay Landesman lived, thanks to Scott Miller of New Line Theatre, and I called him.
He answered the phone himself, sounding surprisingly robust for a man then in his eighty-sixth year. A doorbell rang, far away. “I’ll be right back. The butler has the day off.” he said. I didn’t get the joke until much later. Finally, he gave me permission to revise the book – which had been torn to tatters in the Broadway production – as I saw fit. There were only two conditions.
No song could be removed or added to the score without Fran’s permission.
And the play had to have its original ending, a suicide.
I took a shot at the book, and then assigned it to my husband (who also writes for this site). I listened to the enormous collection of songs which Fran wrote post-Nervous Set, and immediately identified a half-dozen which would be perfect for the revised script. Soon The Nervous Set was over three hours long.
It was obvious that I needed to consult personally with the Landesmans. In London’s West End. So I called Jay. Sure, he said, come on over. Stay with us.
“You’re going to be living with Fran? For a week? She’s a dragon lady,” said someone who knew them both. “If you last more than a day, I’ll be surprised.”
They put me in a small space, sandwiched into a storage room off the stairs, filled with Fran’s slim volumes of poetry, and books about other members of the Beat generation. It was perfect. Jay had the downstairs apartment, while Fran occupied her 2nd floor bedroom and Miles rehearsed in his 3rd floor flat. It was a halcyon week, with days spent looking through old scripts and talking about revisions with Jay; we had supper together every night, then I would venture out to see shows in the local theatre bars, or in the West End.
We were all giddy at the prospect that their Beat jazz musical would return to Broadway.
What everyone wonders
When the big scene is through
Comes down to one question
How was it for you?
Is this what you wanted?
Like your wet dream come true.
I thought it was heaven
How was it for you?
- “How Was It for You?”
Finding lovers, losing lovers, but mostly fighting and making up with Jay filled her notebook with poetry which, once Fran met a musician named Simon Wallace in 1994, got turned into songs.
When Jay caused a fire on their third floor, she wrote “Snapshots”
There they are, the days of jazz and joy-rides
Snaps of magic moments lit by laughs.
If you ever find my house on fire
Leave the silver. Save the photographs.
You can imagine ‘If We’re So Hip’ was a retort to their deepest disappointment – that whoever was up there adjusting the spotlight never got it quite right.
We’re out of offers.
We’re out of smoke.
I’d like some credit before I croak.
It’s getting harder to scratch that itch.
If we’re so clever why aren’t we rich?
and the confessional
I gave you a hard time
Fighting our wars
When I should have been dancing
I was settling scores
When I should have been making sense of my life
I was busy messing up yours.
– “I Should Have Been Dancing”
With Simon, Fran wrote over 300 songs like
Feet do your stuff
When the game is way too tough
You don’t have to play
Just look down and say
‘Feet do your stuff.”
– “Feet Do Your Stuff”
Down has some terrible attractions
Featuring some desperate distractions
And that hooker Misery
Sings “I’ll never set you free”
‘Cause there’s something irresistible in down.
But among them is one song which deserves to properly bookend her writing career.
Don’t be ashamed
everybody’s got scars
from our various wars
on the way to the stars ..
There’s the one on your knee
where you fell of the bike
Or the bite from a babe
that you love but don’t like …
In the streets and the bars
everybody’s got scars
On their way to the stars
Everybody gets scars.
The New York Observer called it “.. a dark purple killer of a song about the blows, emotional and physical, everybody tries to hide.”
Fran and Simon had their regular Friday working session, and I got to sit in. Simon had a melody. Fran had lyrics ready,which she worked intently, one word not sounding right. Bending the rhyming scheme to the melody, shaping the melody line to the meaning, not stopping until she was satisfied. The work was serious, but the mood was relaxed. They laughed a lot.
Simon emailed me: “For the last 17 years, more or less every week, Fran and I would get together to search for the music that would turn her words into songs. At every meeting she would show me a brand new lyric … sometimes just a few beautifully crafted lines, other times verse after verse of immaculately structured language imbued with her inimitable wit and incisive observation. Words flowed of her in a seemingly never ending stream but she was ruthless in her editing, pruning away any dead wood and polishing the final version till it shone.”
The plan to revive The Nervous Set didn’t end as happily. We got it as far as the Chicago Stages New Musical Theater Festival, but it ended there – stymied in part by a tough review from the Sun-Times’ Heidi Weiss, but more importantly by problems with the book we just couldn’t straighten out. And there was the money we needed to raise. In 1959, it cost less than fifty thousand dollars to produce The Nervous Set on Broadway. By 2005, the minimum cost was $5 million. It just wasn’t going to happen, I could see.
There were no hard feelings. In fact, the Landesmans were incredibly gracious. And when I wanted to produce a revue of Fran’s songs for the 2007 Fringe Festival, she gave me free reign to use any of the songs or poems. She even recorded, a cappella, a little song to use at the end.
We called it Queen of the Bohemian Dream. The director was the great Michael Bobbitt and he assembled an outstanding cast: Tracy McMullan, Margo Seibert, Bobby Smith with Darius Smith as music director.
Michael and I spent a lot of time going over Fran’s enormous oeuvre, trying to find the selection of songs that worked best together. As opening date approached, Tim and I became the nervous set ourselves. I urged Tim to write a script to string the songs to each other, and he did. I took it to Michael.
“I’ll do this if you want,” Michael said, “but I think the songs can tell themselves.” He was right. The opening performance was a knockout. The Post’s Nelson Pressley approached Tim after the show. “How long have these guys been rehearsing?” he asked.“Since eleven this morning,” Tim blurted out.
“Source is the setting for another gem: Queen of the Bohemian Dream” Nelson later wrote, “a dashing little cabaret featuring the lyrics of Fran Landesman…the bright cast sing(s) the droll and increasingly dark songs by Landesman and composer Simon Wallace. With its self-producing, uncurated ethic, a lot of the Fringe can feel like Theater Camp, but this is grown-up stuff.”
There’s a slow moving depression/at the bottom of my heart
there’s a lack of any action in my love life and my art
there’s no way that I can shift them,
dark clouds follow me like debts
when I try to lift my spirits I just bump into regrets.
But life goes on, the wheel goes round
Winners lost, the lost are found
Some time my turn will come around
Fran’s story continued to tell itself, too. Despite increasing health challenges, she toured and performed, returning to the States once in 2008 to entertain a sell out crowd back in the old Crystal Palace. And she continued to shock. When she appeared on Desert Island Discs she demanded a supply of cannabis seeds as her luxury item.
When Jay, her husband of sixty years, died in February she soldiered on stoically. But spring, sometimes, can hang you up the most.
“She was a city person who looked back on her years in St Louis with great affection and loved both London and New York… Simon wrote. “A few weeks ago, during her regular Friday session with him, she dashed off this haiku:
Two rivers run through my life
Hudson and Thames
An ocean in between
“All her life she had a passion for English literature and American song carrying Shakespeare and Dickens in her head alongside Cole Porter and Irving Berlin (together with others too numerous to list). It is an enormous privilege to have worked with her and great joy to have known her as a friend,” he added.
Tonight, August 5th , 2011, her fans will gather one last time at the RADA Foyer Bar in London for Fran Landesman – Celebration of a Life, featuring her poetry and music performed by Miles Davis Landesman, Simon Wallace, Sarah Moule, Michael Horovitz, Molly Parkin, Dudley Sutton, Abraham Gibson, Niall Spooner-Harvey among others. There will be a screening of “Almost a Legend: The Life and Lyrics of Fran Landesman”, a short film by Mia Vuorio-Ringwald.
Then the witty pen, the unmistakable voice, the extravagant personality will be at rest.
But we’ll always have Spring.
“Nothing lasts forever
Not fire or ice cream”
Not hope, or heat, or hunger,
And surely not this dream. …
As this delightful moment
Recedes into the past
A part of its perfection
Is that it cannot last.”
- “Nothing Lasts Forever”
She leaves behind an enormous trunk of wonderful songs. Hopefully, this piece will convince some of you to perform and produce them. If interested, you may write to Simon Wallace here.
Fran will be featured in the upcoming documentary about composer Bob Dorough, “Devil May Care.”
Note: I am indebted to Tim Treanor for his support with all things, but especially for his help with this article. – Lorraine