Yesterday we lost a giant. Jack Lee, musical director, conductor, and arranger for literally more Broadway, Off-Broadway, and national tour shows than I can count. He was 86 years old.
I have so many stories to tell, but Jack himself would probably tell me not to yammer and get to the point. So I’ll try (and largely fail) not to go on too long.
I studied musical theater with Jack at NYU, and he’s been a mentor ever since. Jack’s living legacy in my own acting and teaching was the surprisingly rare notion that there is no “acting for musical theater.” There is only acting. And even that should be as natural as everyday life. I can still hear Jack’s voice, anytime any of us got too presentational: “Stop ACTING!!” My students will recognize this as a very Michael Bihovsky thing to say. Well, that’s because it was a very Jack thing to say.
A year after college, Jack asked to hear the album and read the script for Fresh! A New Musical. I was kind of terrified, because Jack tended to loathe any composer born after 1900. Two weeks later I got a call:
“You know what Michael? Most fuckers these days can’t even write a melody. So I gotta tell you, I did not expect the level of goodness in this show. There’s someone I need you to meet.” That someone was theatrical genius, director, and Buddha of our times Guy Stroman. Thanks to this connection, I was introduced to the best lessons in acting and writing that I’ve ever had, along with a new community which welcomed me with open arms. All thanks to Jack, who also continued to provide me with priceless feedback to improve my own compositions. Jack’s most profound influence in my music comes in the form of my musical underscoring for spoken scenes, and the hours of conversations we had about the ability of music not just to guide an emotional experience, but to actually tell the dialogue’s story and subtext via the music itself.
The last time I called Jack, I could hear someone singing in the background at his apartment, and Jack kept asking me to repeat myself until finally he yelled out, “Jesus Christ – Chita, can you STOP for a second?? I’m on the phone.” That, of course, was Chita Rivera, just one of Jack’s many casual houseguests.
To borrow a phrase from the Night’s Watch: “We will never see his like again.” The 86-year-old musical wizard who cursed like a sailor, played piano like he was in Tin Pan Alley, laughed without restraint, and treated his students as a combination of canvas, trophy, and friend.
Thanks for everything, Jack. If there’s a musical theater heaven, I hope you’re hanging out with Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Weill. Because Lord knows that if it’s any modern composer, they’re gonna get an earful.