Jacques Levy

Theatre director and songwriter
Click to follow

Jacques Levy was an affable but maverick American theatre director best known for his long-running Broadway production of the nude revue Oh! Calcutta! and as a songwriter with Bob Dylan (on "Hurricane") and the Byrds ("Chestnut Mare").

Jacques Levy, theatre director and songwriter: born New York 29 July 1935; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 30 September 2004.

Jacques Levy was an affable but maverick American theatre director best known for his long-running Broadway production of the nude revue Oh! Calcutta! and as a songwriter with Bob Dylan (on "Hurricane") and the Byrds ("Chestnut Mare").

Born in New York in 1935, Levy graduated in the city but moved to Michigan to qualify as a clinical psychologist. He recalled,

The night before I left New York and headed out to Michigan State University for a PhD in psychology, my father said to me, "Are you sure?" "It's a helluva time to ask me that, Dad," I said back to him and headed out. Nine years later, PhDed and on the staff at the Menninger Foundation, I answered, "No".

Levy practised clinical psychology in Topeka, Kansas, but returned to New York for his real love, theatre. He directed the off-off-Broadway production Judson, and this became a stepping-stone for the controversial America Hurrah, which ran for 700 performances and criticised America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

With the abolition in 1968 of the Lord Chamberlain's powers of censorship over UK theatre, the critic Kenneth Tynan wanted to make best use of this new-found freedom and devised a revue, Oh! Calcutta!, which, despite its intellectual pretensions, was financed by the doyen of London striptease, Paul Raymond. Levy contributed to the revue and also directed the Broadway production which ran from July 1969 until August 1972.

Levy had an idea for a musical and he sent his girlfriend to talk to Roger McGuinn of the Byrds at the Fillmore East concert hall in New York. McGuinn recalled, "She said, 'My boyfriend is writing a Broadway musical and he wants you to do the score. Are you interested?' " Entranced by her good looks, McGuinn agreed.

The concept was to adapt Ibsen's Peer Gynt into a hippie musical, Gene Tryp. In the original, Peer Gynt, in a dream, was trying to catch a reindeer, but Levy and McGuinn modified the story and changed the reindeer to a wild horse. The horse is scared by a snake and both the horse and its new rider plunge over a cliff. The song, a mixture of narration and fiery chorus called "Chestnut Mare", became a transatlantic hit for the Byrds, with McGuinn singing,

I'm gonna catch that horse if I can,

And when I'll do I'll give her my brand,

We'll be friends for life, she'll be just like a wife,

I'm gonna catch that horse if I can.

Although Levy and McGuinn completed the musical, it was never staged. One reason was that Levy wanted a river running across the stage; another was that it would have run for four hours; and yet another was that the Broadway producer David Merrick despised Oh! Calcutta! and all it stood for. Some of the songs, including "Lover of the Bayou" and "All the Things", have appeared on Byrds albums over the years, notably (untitled) in 1970. Levy also contributed to McGuinn's solo albums Roger McGuinn (1973), Cardiff Rose (1976) and Thunderbyrd (1977).

Around 1975, Bob Dylan was renewing his links with Greenwich Village and he met Levy at the Other End club. He had been impressed with "Chestnut Mare" and they went back to Levy's loft to work on something. Dylan had partly written the song "Isis" and together they completed it. Levy recalled,

It's impossible to remember now who did what: he'd have an idea and then I'd have an idea and then he'd have an idea, until we got to the point where we both recognised what the right idea was, and what the right words were. Whether it came from him or from me doesn't make a difference. I found it amazing, he found it amazing.

Levy encouraged the theatrical side of Dylan's songwriting, where he would set up plots and add flashbacks. A key example and a masterpiece of modern songwriting is "Hurricane", in which they wrote about the imprisonment of the championship boxer Rubin Carter for a triple murder. Carter maintained that he was innocent and that his arrest was racially motivated. The song was answered with a lawsuit and an amended lyric had to be recorded, but the eventual result was a retrial, at which Carter was again convicted. In 1988 the sentence was overturned and Carter released.

"Hurricane" is only one of seven superb songs that Dylan and Levy wrote for Dylan's 1975 album, Desire. Their compositions included "One More Cup of Coffee" (which Dylan sang with Emmylou Harris), "Oh Sister" (which Dave Matthews performed at Farm Aid 2004) and "Joey" (the story of the gangster Joey "Crazy Legs" Gallo, who had been murdered in 1972). They also paid tribute to a baseball pitcher with "Catfish", a song that was recorded by Joe Cocker.

Dylan wanted to tour with his friends, including McGuinn, David Blue and Joan Baez, and he asked Levy to direct. The concept was to have a travelling music show which would visit towns on an ad hoc basis and play small shows; it was to be called the Rolling Thunder Revue. The expenses and the demand for tickets became such that they had to play bigger venues. Levy devised a fluid running order which allowed for guest performers like Joni Mitchell and Kinky Friedman to visit.

In 1976 Levy directed a revival of Oh! Calcutta! on Broadway and in total he was responsible for over 7,000 performances of the show. His other productions included Almost an Eagle (1982) and a musical version of the comic strip Doonesbury (1983). In 1995, he contributed to the stage version of the film Fame. Levy also collaborated with Carly Simon although only one of their songs, "Maryanne", has been released.

Spencer Leigh