Walter Marks '55
The Boss of Broadway
By Jennifer Acker '00
framed print occupies the scarce wall space in Walter Marks’ midtown
Manhattan home office. It is a simple black-on-cream caricature of George
and Ira Gershwin at the piano, drawn lovingly by The New
York Times’ Al
Hirschfeld in the 1930s; the lines are characteristically supple and clean. Of
the Gershwins, Marks ’55 says simply, “They’re my idols."
Marks has been involved in professional theater for nearly 50 years, starting
shortly after he graduated from Amherst as an English major. “I’ve
had a lot of beginner’s luck," he says, referring to scoring his
first Broadway musical, Bajour, just a few years out of college. Starring
Chita Rivera, it ran for 218 performances in 1964 and was nominated for two Tony
Awards (the recording of the soundtrack is still in print). For his next staged
Golden Rainbow, he wrote the hit song “I’ve Gotta Be Me,"
now a standard, most famously recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr., and Tony Bennett.
The first screenplay Marks wrote—based
on the poem by Joseph Moncure March ’20—became the Merchant Ivory
film The Wild Party. His music for the public television series “Getting
On" won an Emmy Award, and he’s also written songs for the ABC series “That’s
Life" and the NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame production of “Pinocchio."
Recently, his first novel, taken on by Otto Penzler, the foremost crime-fiction
editor in the country, was sold to Hollywood for seven figures.
Though he’s explored many genres, his current project, Langston
in Harlem, is something of a departure. The concept actually had its roots
in his recent musical Josephine’s Song, an exploration of Josephine
biography and career, on which he is working with director Kent Gash. The show
is a personality-centered musical, a “star vehicle," that “has
to do with race relations in the world." (Baker was significantly more
successful as an entertainer in Paris than in racially fraught New York.) Of
Gash, an African American, Marks says admiringly, “He’s really guiding
me into the sensibilities of black America."
As they worked on Josephine, Marks began considering other theater treating
African-American experiences. A Raisin in the Sun, for example, which opened
on Broadway in 1959 and starred Sidney Poitier. Its author, Lorraine Hansberry,
was the first black playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics’ Play
of the Year Award. Marks remembered that
the play’s title was a line from a Langston Hughes poem. He recites:
happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat…
Marks stops modestly and says, “It
goes on from there." (The stanza
concludes: “Or crust and sugar over / Like syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just
sags like a heavy load / or does it explode?") The poem is “Harlem,"
part of a sequence titled Montage of a Dream Deferred. The more the composer
read of Hughes, the more he felt the poet “had some music in his head"
as he wrote. “There was music there, it just wasn’t on the page."
Marks then bought the option for the body of Hughes’ work and began to
collaborate with Gash on the idea of musically staging the poetry.
Marks limns the experience of creating music for Langston
in Harlem the way the Greeks described the Muses: “Every time I chose
a new poem to set, all I had to do was keep reading it over and over again, and
I gradually began to hear this music, which doesn’t sound like my music.
It is, but it’s almost like I’m some strange conduit of Langston
Hughes’ energy." Never before had composing felt so transformative.
Photo: Frank Ward