John Latouche, a prolific lyricist of Broadway’s golden age, had an omnivorous taste in art and friends. He worked with Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, supported John Cage and Ellsworth Kelly and hosted salons at which Carol Channing might rub elbows with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Paul and Jane Bowles met through Latouche, as did Tennessee Williams and his longtime partner Frank Merlo. It’s possible that he knew the woman who inspired Holly Golightly of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” After he died in 1956, of a heart attack at age 41, Carson McCullers said in her eulogy, “I have never known a man more versatile.”
But Latouche, unlike many of his friends, is far from a household name today.
His legacy has been clouded by the very versatility that once earned him admirers, said Howard Pollack, a professor of music at the University of Houston and author of the new biography “The Ballad of John Latouche.” The book — nearly 500 dense but rich pages — is the first survey to fill in the gaps of Latouche’s liquor-soaked life and career as a lyricist whose clever writing for Broadway and experimental theater prefigured Stephen Sondheim.
“He was bridging a gap between high art and popular art,” Mr. Pollack said. “And a lot of works that kind of fall in the cracks between high art and popular entertainment get overlooked.”
Latouche also didn’t live long enough to produce what could have been his greatest works, Mr. Pollack added. “If Oscar Hammerstein had died at age 41, we wouldn’t have had any of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals,” he pointed out.
What remains are musicals in the repertory, notably “Candide,” as well as the opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe” and cult shows like “Cabin in the Sky” and “The Golden Apple.” The latter features the song “Lazy Afternoon,” a standard that has been recorded by Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, among others.
“Candide” is currently making the rounds at theaters celebrating the centennial of Bernstein’s birth. And “Cabin in the Sky” and “The Golden Apple” were staged during the past two seasons of New York City Center’s Encores! series.
“His voice was coming from a very different place than other typical lyricists, who are writing about love and loss,” said Jack Viertel, the program’s artistic director. “His lyrics have a social conscience, and they have historical knowledge. There’s something learned about it.”
As a scholar, Mr. Pollack has focused on composers who straddled the line between high and popular art, especially in the midcentury when serious composers wrote for Broadway. His last book was a sweeping biography of Marc Blitzstein; other subjects have included George Gershwin and Aaron Copland.
The new book contains dishy insights into Latouche’s drinking habits and prickly behavior with such cultural eminences as Kelly and the poet John Ashbery, both of whom have died since they were interviewed.
Latouche first made a name for himself at Columbia University as a clever, audacious and brazenly gay writer of cabaret songs. For the school’s annual Varsity Show, he wrote “Flair-Flair: The Idol of Paree,” which Mr. Pollack said “was so bawdy and gay that the next year, Columbia put an end to female impersonation for the Varsity Show.”
The performances were fearless, campy and openly sexual. Among the people who came to hear his cabaret songs were the poet E. E. Cummings, Blitzstein and Copland.
“That made a big impact on American culture at the time,” Mr. Pollack said.
After dropping out of college, Latouche arrived on the theater scene as a short, shrewd wunderkind. His earliest successes had such broad appeal that his cantata “Ballad for Americans” was performed at both the Communist and Republican presidential conventions in 1940.
Composers, especially adventurous musicians interested in experimental theater, were attracted to his musical instinct and lyrics that, while seemingly flat on the page, became “pure magic” when set to music, Mr. Pollack said.
“He knew what word would go well with a dissonant note or a harmonic modulation,” he added. “Composers like Ellington and Bernstein valued this enormously.”
The musicality of Latouche’s lyrics shines in “Candide,” which had a famously thorny road to its premiere. Bernstein’s original collaborator on the operetta was the playwright Lillian Hellman, but she eventually withdrew her libretto, and together they enlisted contributions from lyricists including Latouche, Dorothy Parker and, finally, Richard Wilbur. (The cover of the first cast recording credited all three of them.)
Latouche’s lyrics, Mr. Pollack said, have a dramatic instinct that Wilbur, with little experience in theater, couldn’t quite compete with. Mr. Pollack pointed to the song “You Were Dead, You Know,” which in Latouche’s version has an 18th-century rhetoric reminiscent of Voltaire’s world:
Dearest lady, pray explain.
I had thought you slain;
Thought you rudely violated too.
Wilbur’s revisions are clever — they even elicited widespread laughter at the production Harold Prince directed at New York City Opera in January — but according to Mr. Pollack, they don’t achieve the soaring assonance of Latouche’s lyrics:
Dearest, how can this be so?
You were dead, you know.
You were shot and bayoneted, too.
Bernstein revised “Candide” for the rest of his life. Today, there are several working versions, Mr. Pollack said, and they have restored some of Latouche’s contributions to the libretto. Anyone who sees the operetta now will hear more of his lyrics than audiences did in the 1950s.
Latouche never wrote any lyrics for the show’s second act, though. By then, Bernstein had fired him. Like many people in the theater industry, he found Latouche exasperating.
“He was very erratic, a high liver,” Mr. Pollack said of Latouche. “There were drinking binges, and he would disappear for days on end. He was also rather temperamental and volatile, in a childlike way.”
Latouche also had trouble delivering on commissions. He accepted more jobs than he could handle, and was prone to missing deadlines or dissatisfying collaborators. He once planned to write a show with Kurt Weill — who, angry at Latouche for showing up to meetings apparently hung over, didn’t last long before throwing up his hands and saying, “I can’t work with him!”
“One could imagine what he might have accomplished if he were more disciplined,” Mr. Pollack said. “I think that’s why he would consult with and engage in self-help — to instill more discipline.”
As a friend, however, Latouche was beloved for being loyal, generous and joyful. Gore Vidal wrote him into his roman à clef “The Golden Age.” Paul Bowles said, “I was very angry with him for dying, for depriving everybody of his person.”
And McCullers wrote, “John was a man who died as he was approaching the peak of his greatness. We can only think with wonder and sorrow about the work he would have done.”