- The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist's Life and Work by Howard Pollack
Howard Pollack has written a number of authoritative studies—of important musical theater personalities, including Marc Blitzstein and George Gershwin, and perhaps most famously of composer Aaron Copland. It might seem surprising, then, to find him penning a large tome on the little-known lyricist John Latouche, who died at the age of forty-one in 1956. Latouch never had a "major hit" in the sense that we think of other lyricists Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, or composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and would be familiar to the average theater-going audience for being the lyricist first involved in Leonard Bernstein's and Lillian Hellman's Candide (1956), for Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956), and perhaps for Vernon Duke's Cabin in the Sky (1940). To the average nontheater-going audience, Latouche would not be known at all. Therefore, it is refreshing and also illuminating to get such a detailed look at an artist who died so young and for whom very little, if any, scholarship already exists. Pollack's book, impressive at nearly five-hundred pages plus notes and illustrations, is a complete look at the lyricist, poet, and author who wrote an extensive number of works for various genres during his short, active life. Latouche was involved heavily with the New York artistic scene and wrote plays, poetry, and translations. He was also involved in film and had his own film company. His most important works, in Pollack's opinion, were Ballad for Americans (1939), Ballet Ballads (1948), and The Ballad of Baby Doe, and he worked most prominently with composers Duke and Moore, the composer of Doe.
Latouche was not at the zenith of musical theater authorship but approached it in a number of works. Pollack achieves a scholarly tour-de-force, given [End Page 135] that very little archival or documentary evidence on his subject survives. He had access to some of Latouche's diaries, artistic material, and an unfinished monograph written in the 1970s that he received from the widow of Andrew H. Drummond, Latouche's first biographer, as well as the archives of those close (and not so close) to Latouche—friends, fellow artists and performers, producers, and others in his wide orbit. As a result, this book offers a view of Broadway, with all the characters, events, works, and trends that were popular at the time. Though Latouche is certainly in the foreground, this study reads in some ways more like a history of the period than an in-depth investigation of Latouche's art. This is not a criticism, however. As musical theater scholarship continues to burgeon, there are still lacunae in our knowledge about some shows and the people who made them. This is perhaps the book's primary achievement. Those who know nothing of Latouche—and even those who do—will not be disappointed, however, in the rich detailing of his life, starting in the earlier chapters with his upbringing in the American South and ending with his death and the subsequent eulogizing in New York City. Every show, series of songs, and event that the author was able to find out about is richly documented, so readers can follow the fascinating and often high-flying life of the lyricist through a long series of professional relationships and projects.
It is interesting to learn more about some of the works that were important to Latouche's career. Chapter 5 deals with Ballad for Americans, a somewhat controversial work as it seemed to show middlebrow patriotism to an audience that should have taken it more seriously or critically. Bringing in perspectives from contemporary as well as modern authors, Pollack situates the work in its original context while recognizing how it might be read differently today. The author treats more controversial aspects of Latouche's life appropriately, not sidestepping aspects...