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A Fats Chance That's Paid off

January 8, 2009 By:
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Oh, Murray Horwitz, be-HAY-ve!

But then why shouldn't he? "Ain't Misbehavin' " ain't exactly been bad to him all these years.

Indeed, since he and Richard Maltby Jr. took a fat chance with Fats Waller's music and put together a musical/revue that rocked and rolled with the sweetness and soulful sass of a "Honeysuckle Rose" 30 years ago, Horwitz has tuned into the horn o' plenty that was Waller, the black-and-blues composer who took music -- and piano --in his stride.

Now, Horwitz is striding into Philly, where "Ain't Misbehavin' " acts up for a weekend run beginning this Friday at the Academy of Music.

This Jew is jumpin' -- from clown college (where Horwitz graduated summa cum laughter) to a one-man show yoked to Yiddish; to exec positions at the National Endowment for the Arts, National Public Radio and the American Film Institute; to the Met, where he met up with acclaim writing for an opera.

Clown ... opera? "Pagliacci" anyone?

More Tevye than "Turandot": That one-man Horwitz sought out for his one-man show before Fats Waller was Sholom Aleichem, when the relatively newbie actor brought his show to Philadelphia for an extended run.

"My grandfather used to read Sholom Aleichem's works to me in Yiddish when I was young; then, when my grandfather got too old to see, I'd read to him in English."

Their body language was the body of work that would one day take Tevye from Anatevka to Broadway and, for Horwitz, to a local cabaret of a lair in Philly.

"I've been lucky in the way I've chosen things," says the actor/entrepreneur/writer/lyricist and one of the Chosen People to make a choice career out of theater.

'Great' Gig
A career of operatic proportions? Well, he did go lyrical, adding some songs -- which were played on the radio on stage -- to the Metropolitan Opera 1999 production of "The Great Gatsby."

Great grasp of music and words led to that gig, but what brought Horwitz to "the black Horowitz" -- a leviathan of a comparison the late, great Oscar Levant once made between Waller and Vladimir Horowitz?

More than music, maybe, was the mirth: Waller "was the best comedian who ever played jazz," says Horwitz.

Indeed, time stops in its soundtracks for Waller. "One of the things that carries Fats and his music forward to now is its comedy, his exuberance."

Thirty years later, the musical built on the legacy of the late 39-year-old entertainer pulses on.

How the years go by. "It's funny," relates the former clown, "but my joke, when I was starting out as 'Sholom Aleichem,' was that with any luck, I'd do [the show] as long as Sholom had lived."

That's life: He's outlived Aleichem, who died at age 57, by two years, so far, and still stages the sweet stories of fool's gold in sterling productions during the year.

And speaking of fools ... A Jewish clown? That's a one-liner all its own, a paradox punched into a punchline, right? No, just following in the tradition of Jews knowing how to laugh at themselves, says Horwitz.

"When you tell somebody you were a clown ... it opens some doors in the business."

It can also unhinge expectations. "It certainly opens eyes."

Lend him your ears: That experience at the Met "is hard to put into words," says the man who did just that for the production.

"To stand on stage at the Metropolitan, to hold hands with [music director] James Levine, taking a bow at curtain call ..."

He calls up the memory and what ran through his mind at the time: "What the hell am I doing here?"

Home is where the heart is, and, back home in his native Dayton, Ohio, this Kenyon College alum is still bowled over by the importance of activism -- and activity. "My mother still bowls every week; she rolled a 200 game last year," he says of his 91-year-old mom and kingpin of the now defunct B'nai B'rith Bowling League of Dayton.

These days, Horwitz hardly has time to spare, having "recently been commissioned to write a concert about the Gershwins."

'S marvelous, the multi-faceted, protean career this pro has had, connecting to the arts on stage and off. But then some dots are easier to connect, like those linking his love of Waller and Aleichem. What ties together a black piano man with a Jewish storyteller, the road that travels from Anatevka to an upbeat stage in Harlem?

Horwitz muses of their own sweet music: "They have the same message -- that we're all in this together."

And together they all stand with another distinct link. What else do they have in common?

With a smile in his voice, the actor/ producer offers the answer: "Murray Horwitz."  

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