Leonard Gershe

Friday 22 March 2002 01:00 GMT

Leonard Gershe, playwright and lyricist: born New York 1922; died Beverly Hills, California 9 March 2002.

The playwright and lyricist Leonard Gershe wrote one of the most successful plays in Broadway history, Butterflies are Free, and both script and story for the classic musical Funny Face, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire and earned Gershe an Oscar nomination. He also wrote lyrics for three of the film's songs, and co-wrote with Roger Edens the famous "Born in a Trunk" number introduced by Judy Garland in A Star is Born. His other credits include the screenplays for Silk Stockings and That's Entertainment II and the libretto for the Broadway musical Destry Rides Again.

Gershe, who was born in Manhattan in 1922, began his career by writing material for revues. In London in 1947 he collaborated with the composer Richard Adinsell on two numbers, "A Jabberwocky Song" and "Sing, Child, Sing", introduced by Elisabeth Welch in Laurier Lister's revue Tuppence Coloured, and the following year he contributed lyrics to the Broadway revue Alive and Kicking.

He moved to Hollywood after forming a close personal and professional relationship with Roger Edens, the composer-arranger considered a prime force in the Freed unit, which made the finest MGM musicals. Edens had always worked closely with Judy Garland, and in 1953 he was asked to provide a song for A Star is Born.

The film was near completion but still lacked the climax for its first half. It was to be a lavish production number which catapults the heroine Vicki Lester to stardom, but, though the film's composers, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, had provided three songs for the sequence, none of them had been considered suitable. Edens and Gershe conceived "Born in a Trunk", which formed the theme and framework for a medley of songs, but, because Edens was under contract to MGM and the film was for Warners, he allowed Gershe to be given full credit.

The film Funny Face, which was virtually an MGM musical though made at Paramount, had its genesis with Gershe. While in London writing with Addinsell in 1947, he was telling the writer Clemence Dane about his friend the photographer Richard Avedon, who had made his wife (Doe Avedon) into a top model although she had no interest in such a career. According to Gershe, Dane responded by saying, "What a glorious idea for a musical – the fashion world, a fashion photographer, and a model who doesn't want to be a model. Why don't you write it?"

Gershe took her advice and wrote a stage libretto entitled Wedding Day, in which his friends Richard and Doe were thinly disguised and named Rick and Jo, and he persuaded Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash to write a score. With the help of a young editor at Harper's Bazaar who fed him information about the forceful editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, Gershe fashioned a third leading character, even incorporating a word Vreeland had invented to describe the ultimate in chic and style, bezazz. The role seemed perfect for the night-club performer Kay Thompson, but, when she turned the role down, a projected Broadway production was abandoned. "Kay Thompson read Wedding Day," said Gershe, "and she would have absolutely nothing to do with it."

Some years later, when Roger Edens was looking for a property which he could produce at MGM, Gershe showed him Wedding Day. Edens liked the script but rejected the Duke-Nash score. When he spotted a line Gershe had written for the young heroine, "I think my face is perfectly funny", he suggested they use the Gershwin song "Funny Face", which would also become the film's title. Stanley Donen was signed to direct, and Richard Avedon, who was to be a consultant, was thrilled when he was told that the male lead (now called Dick Avery) was to be played by Astaire ("When I was a child, I always wanted to grow up and become Fred Astaire").

Edens and Gershe considered Carol Haney and Cyd Charisse for the female lead before learning that Audrey Hepburn, then the most sought-after star in Hollywood, had been a dancer and wanted to do a musical. Hepburn loved the script, but later said the real incentive was to realise her lifetime dream to dance with Fred Astaire.

Seemingly insurmountable problems were then to arise, since Hepburn and Astaire were under contract to Paramount, Edens, Gershe and Donen were with MGM, who had paid for the property's development, and the Gershwin songs were owned by Warner Bros. But, said Astaire later, "I knew that Audrey wanted to make the picture and that sooner or later they would all come around – because Audrey is a lady who gets her way." The film thus became a Paramount production with most of the major creative personnel on loan from MGM.

With Avedon providing guidance on its stunning photography, Funny Face proved captivating. Its songs were mainly from the catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin, but three were new ones by Edens and Gershe. For the film's opening, they wrote "Think Pink!", in which the editor dictates which colour women of fashion will be wearing (though she later confesses that she "wouldn't be caught dead . . ."). Thompson and Hepburn shared a humorous number, "On How To Be Lovely", but the best new song was the infectious tribute to the city of light, "Bonjour, Paris", in which the three leads separately sample their own favourite attractions of the city before accidentally meeting on the Eiffel Tower. The film also put Vreeland's favourite word permanently into the language, though because of a copytaker's error it became converted into "pizazz".

Gershe was to work with Astaire three more times. He co-scripted with Leonard Spigelgass the film version of the Broadway musical Silk Stockings (1957), itself based on the film Ninotchka, and he also wrote the screenplay for That's Entertainment II (1976), in which Astaire and Gene Kelly played hosts to a collection of vintage film clips, and he wrote the original story for a television movie starring Astaire, The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (1978).

In 1959 Gershe wrote the libretto for a Broadway musical Destry Rides Again, with a score by Harold Rome and starring Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray in the roles immortalised on screen by James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. It was a difficult assignment, since Rome had already written his score to accommodate an earlier libretto which had been rejected by the producer David Merrick, so Gershe had to construct his book around numbers he had not helped shape.

Gray, already worried that her part was less important than the hero's, had a feud with the director-choreographer Michael Kidd that resulted in his calling her a "slut" in front of the company. She slapped his face and he hit her back, making newspaper headlines. When Merrick was asked to join the company and pacify his star, he replied, "I couldn't buy publicity like this for $5,000 a week. Let 'em fight it out."

The show ran for over a year on Broadway, and Gershe enjoyed a good relationship with Merrick, so several years later he gave the producer the first chance to stage his play Butterflies are Free. It told of a young blind man, dominated by an over-protective mother, who bravely takes an apartment on his own in New York and falls in love with a kooky would-be actress living next door. Gershe based the character of the actress on his own next-door neighbour in New York, Mia Farrow. Merrick turned the piece down, predicting that its sentimental tale lacked the bite or substance for Broadway success.

Butterflies are Free, its title taken from Bleak House, opened in 1969 and proved a smash hit, running for over a thousand performances. When Eileen Heckart relinquished the role of the mother after a two-year run, the role was taken by Gloria Swanson, which extended the show's success. In 1972 it became a film, with Edward Albert and Goldie Hawn in the roles created on stage by Keir Dullea and Blythe Danner. Heckart repeated her stage performance as the mother and won a supporting actress Oscar.

Gershe wrote the screen adaptation of another Broadway hit, Forty Carats (1973), but a later play, Snacks (1982), failed to be produced.

Tom Vallance

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in