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Home > Past Buzz > Remembering Levy: Colgate Honors a Cultural Icon

By May, Andrew
Published: Friday, February 4, 2005

On Saturday evening, Colgate students, professors and alums gathered together in Brehmer Theater to listen to a reading of a play entitled A Cold Shattered Light to honor the memory of Jacques Levy, who headed Colgate's Theater department for 12 years. Levy, who died of cancer in September, was regarded as one of popular culture's renaissance men, known for his work as a Broadway director and for his lyrical collaborations with Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.
A Cold Shattered Light, written by Christian Greer '99, explores the strain between politics and family life in today's media-saturated, politically-divided culture. The play takes place in Washington D.C. where Rebecca and John Austin (played by Carolyn Fischer '00 and Kieran Campion '99) are coping with their daughter Katie's homosexuality (Carrie Flynn '99) in the midst of Rebecca's plans to run for the United States Senate. Filled with overtones of the recent 2004 Presidential election, ideological differences stifle the Austin family and pit their love for one and other against their political loyalties. The play is the fifth production by the Bobik Arts Ensemble, which Levy helped found in 2000.
"We really owe this theater company's existence to Jacques," remarked Greer, who considers the play a work in progress. "I'm really happy that we could honor him in this way."
At the reception that followed, friends and colleagues praised the man who touched so many of their lives. "Jacques really helped me advance and improve my persona and ability," remarked Kieran Campion '99, who has been working as an actor since he left Colgate. "Tonight's reading was a real [celebration of] what he meant to all of us."
"Just watching Jacques was an inspiration," added Tara Meddaugh '99, who played the role of a snooping Fox News reporter in the play. "I don't think I can find the words to describe what he meant to me."
"I was really glad that this event happened," agreed senior Nick Thielen. "It was exactly what Jacques would have wanted."
Because the readers included both alumni as well as those still active at Colgate, a complete production of A Cold Shattered Light was not a feasible task. Nevertheless, most in attendance agreed that the lack of stage blocking did not significantly detract from the play's vitality. "The readers really made the story come alive," sophomore Kevin Barber said.
While the play was selected because of its affiliation with the Bobik Arts Ensemble rather than its content, most agreed that the spirit of the evening was most important. "I think the overtones of the play would have definitely been up Jacques' alley," Campion observed. "But to show all the people he influenced I think says a lot more."  

Although Levy's influence at Colgate was incredibly profound, his legacy extends far beyond the narrow borders of Hamilton. A clinical psychologist for several years, Levy became involved in off-Broadway and regional theater production in the 1960s including Red Cross and America Hurrah. In 1969, Levy made his Broadway debut, directing the controversial musical Oh! Calcutta! written by Ken Tynan. Described as "elegant erotica," Oh! Calcutta! ran for 13 years with a brief hiatus, for a total of 7,273 performances. The production earned Levy a Grammy nomination.
Levy's successful direction of Oh! Calcutta! attracted the attention of Roger McGuinn of the The Byrds, who asked Levy to help him co-write a rock musical entitled Gene Tryp. While the musical was never produced, the songs McGuinn and Levy wrote together appeared on various albums by the Byrds including, Chestnute Mare and Just a Season. Levy also contributed to McGuinn's first solo EP in 1973.
In the summer of 1975, Levy met Bob Dylan in New York and Dylan suggested a possible collaboration. Pleased with Levy's lyrical contributions on Dylan's song "Isis," Dylan asked Levy to spend time with him at his summer home on Long Island so that the two could write more songs together. Although Dylan had released his acclaimed album Blood on the Tracks only six months prior, his excitement about working with Levy prompted him to write and record the album Desire immediately on the heals of his previous release. Of the nine tracks on the album, Levy co-wrote seven of them, including "Hurricane," which told the story of heavyweight boxer Rubin Carter, who had been wrongfully accused of murder. Carter's story has since been made into a movie - the Academy Award-nominated Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington.
Levy's theatrical influence can be clearly seen in the opening lyrics to Hurricane, which sound like stage directions: "Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night. Enter Patty Valentine from the other hall. She sees the bartender in a pool of blood. Cries out, "My God, they killed them all!"

In addition to his work with McGuinn and Dylan, Levy's lyrics have also been recorded by Carly Simon, Joe Cocker and Jerry Lee Lewis.
After touring for several years with Dylan, Levy returned to the theater world. In search of new and creative ideas, Levy wrote and produced the musical Doonesbury in 1983, based on the popular cartoon. Five years later, Levy wrote the lyrics to Fame: The Musical, of which there are still currently 40 productions touring across the world. Academia beckoned Levy, however, and he began to teach playwriting and directing at New York University, Columbia and Yale in the late 1980s, eventually winding up at Colgate in 1992.
"Whenever he would open a play, we would go to the Colgate Inn," recalls Professor of English Margret Mauer, who played the part of Abigail in the reading of A Cold Shattered Light. "Jacques would order a Scotch and say, 'It's always the same problem, Margret. Should I teach or should I direct?'" In his lifetime Jacques Levy did both - but for those who assembled in Brehmer Saturday night to honor his memory, it is Levy's legacy as a teacher that will be remembered most dearly.

By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson
04 Oct 2004

Jacques Levy, Director of Broadway's Oh! Calcutta! and Doonesbury, Dead at 69

Jacques Levy, the lyricist, director and teacher who staged the naughty long-running revue, Oh! Calcutta! , as well as the musical Doonesbury and Off Broadway's America Hurrah , died Sept. 30 in Manhattan, according to The New York Times.

The cause of death was cancer, his family said. Mr. Levy was 69 and lived in SoHo.

Mr. Levy was a lyricist who contributed to the stage musical, Fame. He also co-wrote several songs on Bob Dylan's classic "Desire" album.

Mr. Levy rose to prominence in the mid-60s as the director of Jean-Claude van Itallie's America Hurrah and was active in The Open Theatre, the experimental Off Broadway playground run by Joseph Chaikin. He also directed Bruce Jay Friedman's Off-Broadway Scuba Duba (mentioned in "The Season," William Goldman's document of the 1967-68 Broadway season).

His most high-profile work was directing the 1969 Broadway revue about sex, Oh! Calcutta! , which was devised by Kenneth Tynan and had contributions from writers as diverse as Sam Shepard, David Newman, John Lennon, Jules Feiffer and Leonard Melfi. He directed the 1976 revival, as well, which stacked up 5,959 performances to become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. Mr. Levy also contributed songs to the show.

Accoring to Kathleen Tynan's "The Autobiography of Kenneth Tynan," the critic hired Levy as the director of Calcutta after seeing a London production of America Hurrah . Mr. Levy spent much time considering how best to confront the question of nudity. Finally, during one point in early rehearsals, Mr. Levy told the cast simply, "Take off your robes." "It was back to the Garden all of a sudden, a great high," he recalled, "but not an erotic one. Once they'd broken that barrier it was a lot easier."

Both Mr. Levy and Tynan consider Calcutta a precursor to A Chorus Line .

Mr. Levy also mounted early works by Sam Shepard ( La Turista ) and Terrence McNally ( Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? ) and worked at the legendary Judson Poets Theater, Playbill On-Line previously reported. His Broadway credits include directing the musical Doonesbury (1983-84 season) and the play Almost and Eagle .

His work in Scuba Duba resulted in a brief war or words with New Republic critic Richard Gilman. Gilman called the play "a new perfect product of the new pseudo-sophistication," and said Levy's "work is constantly threatened by a streak of tastelessness announcing itself as verve." Mr. Levy retaliated by mocking the critic in a subsequent New York Times interview. Gilman then published an essay in which he relagated Mr. Levy to the ranks of a new theatre movement called "The New Barbarism," in which theatre artists simply did their "thing" and rejected all formal criticism.

Mr. Levy won an Obie Award in 1966. According to the Times, he taught directing and playwriting at New York University, Columbia and Yale, as well as Colgate University.

In 2002, Mr. Levy directed Off-Broadway's The Bridge in Scarsdale , a new play by Robert Remington Wood. Bridge told of a painter who has been holed up in a mental institution for a quarter century and her husband, a famous designer of bridges.

The Times reported he graduated from City College in 1956 and later earned a master's degree at the Michigan State University in 1958 and later a PhD there in 1961. After a stint as a clinical psychologist, he moved to working in the theatre.

He is survived by wife Claudia Carr Levy, daughter Maya Jeanne and son Julien.

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