Monday morning I awoke to a two-sentence radio news item that said Broadway composer Mitch Leigh had died at the age of 86, and that he had written the music for Man of La Mancha and the “But nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” jingle. Mr. Leigh deserves a broader appreciation for his storybook American life.
Mr. Leigh (nee Irwin Michnick) was born in Brooklyn in 1928, son of an immigrant from Ukraine who made a living as a furrier. After serving in the Army, he went to Yale on the GI Bill and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music.
He worked in advertising, writing jingles. On the side he wrote some incidental music for a few comedies before getting his big break in 1964. He was invited to compose the score for a new musical being developed for Broadway. This musical was based upon the title hero of Don Quixote, the novel written by Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s. It was developed at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
[Side Note: The Shakespeare Theatre’s own Michael Kahn was around as the musical was created. See Michael Kahn discloses STC’s next season.
Few could have dreamed that Man of La Mancha would become such a huge hit. It opened in 1965 and was an instant success that ran on Broadway for six years. Man of La Mancha won five Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist (Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion), and Best Actor in a Musical for Richard Kiley. It also spawned one of the most famous songs in musical theatre history, The Impossible Dream.
Growing up in a small Southern town, I had no early exposure to Broadway theatre. Yet I still remember being eight years old and hearing Jim Nabors sing The Impossible Dream on the TV sitcom Gomer Pyle: USMC. [Yes, you can find it on YouTube.]
Later when I was twelve I begged my mother to take me to see the film version of Man of La Mancha which starred Peter O’Toole (although his singing was dubbed.) I became a lifelong fan of the musical and especially the thrilling and inspirational song The Impossible Dream.
Since that time I have taken advantage of almost every opportunity to see Man of La Mancha, including the most recent Broadway revival in 2003 starring Brian Stokes Mitchell (what a voice!). Our area has also been fortunate to have hosted some fine local productions such as the emotional powerhouse at the Keegan Theatre in 2008, and I am eagerly awaiting the production coming in the Shakespeare Theatre’s 2014-2015 season.
As for Mr. Leigh, he wrote music for some additional Broadway shows, but never had another commercial hit. Still, it is admirable that he kept trying, and that he continued his career in advertising long after he could have retired on his earnings from Man of La Mancha.
Mr. Leigh also deserves admiration for being a renaissance man, both in theatre and in other ventures. Mr. Leigh loved to support works of theatre he admired, serving as a producer for the 1983 revival of Mame with Angela Lansbury and director for the 1985 revival of The King and I with Yul Brenner (earning him another Tony Award® nomination).
He was a generous man. He funded the renovation for Yale’s School of Music building but insisted that it be named the “Abby and Mitch Leigh Hall” to include his beloved second wife (a marriage that lasted more than 42 years until his death). He also endowed a professorship in honor of a Yale classmate, the Willie Ruff Chair in Jazz.
One of his final endeavors came in the field of real estate development. He worked for years on a project in Jackson Township, NJ called Jackson 21. He aimed to create a downtown square with housing for artists and other “nice people” to live and work.
While I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Leigh, by all accounts he was one of the nice people. The theatre world has suffered a loss, but we can all take comfort in his continuing legacy.
This morning, the Broadway League announced that tonight, the marquees of Broadway theatres will dim their lights at 7:45pm for one minute in honor of composer, director and producer Mitch Leigh.