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Remembering Oscar Levant

Remembering Oscar Levant

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

One of the most colorful and controversial performers of his generation, Oscar Levant was an immensely gifted composer, pianist and raconteur whose life and career were hobbled by a ferocious addiction to prescription drugs.

Now, Levant returns in “At Wit’s End,” a one-man show starring Chuck Muckle as the chain-smoking genius with a penchant for devastating one-liners. The show runs next Wednesday evening at the One Man Talking theater festival in Chelsea.

Levant, who was born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Pittsburgh, composed more than 20 Hollywood film scores, and he appeared in supporting roles in “An American in Paris,” “The Band Wagon,” and other MGM movie musicals. His work with Al Jolson and George Gershwin, along with his frequent appearances on quiz and variety shows, made him a household name — this despite eyebrow-raising quips, such as the one on live TV about Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller rendering her “kosher” so that he could “eat her.”

Directed by June Prager, “At Wit’s End” was penned in the 1980s by playwright Joel Kimmel; it originally starred pianist Stan Freeman. Muckle rescued the play from oblivion and has presented it recently at theaters in Scranton and Cape May, as well as at the JCC of Pittsburgh. The play follows a similar format to the Concerts with Comment series that Levant actually performed in 1942 at the Civic Opera House in Pittsburgh, in which he played classical music, told jokes and stories, and described his encounters with the luminaries of the day.

Muckle is best known for touring with Robert Goulet in “Camelot” and “South Pacific.” He told The Jewish Week that Levant, who died of a heart attack in 1972, was a “cavalcade of mid-20th-century American culture,” in that he was associated with celebrities from Judy Garland to Arturo Toscanini. But, Muckle speculated, because Levant played the “second banana” role in his films, he never achieved the kind of stardom that the country’s top performers enjoyed.

“Levant was so infatuated with Gershwin that he set aside his own work for the greater glory of Gershwin’s career,” Muckle said. When Gershwin died young, Levant “never resolved his feelings about losing him.” This is shown in the play by Levant’s struggles to get through a rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — the “bromance” between the two men, Muckle noted, is “literally played out in the show.”

Muckle’s aim is for his portrayal to bring Levant back to public consciousness, and to do so in a way that illuminates the play’s stirring conclusion, which is that there is simply “no life as exciting, original, amusing or regenerative than the one that you see here before you.”

“At Wit’s End” will be performed on Wednesday, March 13 at 7 p.m. at the TADA Theatre, 15 W. 28th St. For tickets, $10, visit

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