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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2004 > The Boss of Broadway

Walter Marks '55

The Boss of Broadway

By Jennifer Acker '00

Cartoon of Gershwin brothers composing.A 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 musical, 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 Baker’s 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:

What 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.

Continued >>

Photo: Frank Ward


Online Extra


Langston in Harlem songs (MP3 format):


Merchant Ivory's The Wild Party

Internet Broadway Database

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