When I was a student at Pomona College (Claremont, CA) in the late 1950s, folk music was just appearing on the scene. A classmate of mine was a little unusual since he was one of the few students who had a beard, sang folk songs and played guitar. One of the songs he sang was Thais, a five-minute humorous synopsis of the opera with witty verses and clever rhymes. With thirteen verses, it is an epic poem set to music.
One time in Alexandria,
in wicked Alexandria,
Where nights were wild with revelry,
and life was but a game.
There lived, so the report is,
an adventuress and courtesan,
The pride of Alexandria,
and Thais was her name.
I learned this song from Song Fest, “the old yellow songbook,” which was a popular source of folk songs for group singing – sort of like Rise Up Singing is today. My two surviving copies are well worn with the covers mostly gone. Lyrics and music were given for each song, but never the source or author.
Some years ago while driving through Death Valley (an appropriate locale for this song), I thought of this song, which I hadn’t sung in many years. Much to my astonishment, I knew all the words even though I had never attempted to memorize it – I always sang it from the book. All I had to do was to put the lines in the right order and I had the whole song, all thirteen verses!
When I sang this song again in public, someone asked me who wrote it. I hadn’t the faintest idea. With my curiosity piqued, I did a little research. The author turned out to be Newman Levy.
Newman Levy (1888–1966) was an interesting man who lived a double life. He was an Assistant District Attorney of New York City, a trial lawyer, and a writer of light verse who loved opera and theater. His father, a highly successful lawyer, insisted that his son become a lawyer, but Newman really wanted to become a writer, lyricist, and a musician like his cousin Richard Rogers. In fact he studied music composition with Deems Taylor and composed musicals as a college undergraduate before going to law school.
In the course of a successful law career, he also became a writer of light verse for the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines of the early 20th century. He published several books of light verse including Opera Guyed, Theatre Guyed, Saturday to Monday, Gay But Wistful, and in 1958, an autobiography, My Double Life – Adventures in Law & Letters.
Quoting from My Double Life: “I awoke one morning with four lines of verse jingling in my head:
Jack Spink was fond of drink,
His wife, she liked to eat.
For eats is eats and wets is wets,
And never the twain shall meet.
It was not precisely KubIa Khan, which I believe was composed under somewhat similar circumstances, but Bob Sherwood at Life paid me five dollars for it. This experience opened up new and alluring possibilities. If I could train my subconscious to work while I slept I could practice law in the daytime and turn out deathless literature at night -a most enchanting prospect.”
Poets will be happy to know from his verse that it is possible to rhyme “quite merry at” with “proletariat,” and “career” with “brassiere.”
Thais was one of the epic poems in Opera Guyed, his best-known book. This book is a delightful collection of humorous poems describing the stories of many operas in terms that the average guy could understand (“Guyed”).
Another song came from his poem about the opera Carmen set to the tune of the song El Paso.
In Spain, where the courtly Castilian hidalgo
Twangs lightly each night his romantic guitar,
Where the castanets clink on the gay piazetta
And strains of fandangoes are heard from afar;
There lived, I am told, a bold hussy named Carmen
A pampered young vamp full of devil and guile.
Cigarette and cigar men were smitten with Carmen;
From near and from far men were caught with her smile.
Theater Guyed is a similar collection of poems about famous plays, including Oedipus Rex,
List to the story of Oedipus Rex,
Poor little, misunderstood little Oedipus,
Victim of sad maladjustment of sex,
Poor little Oedipus Rex.
When Oedipus was but a babe,
(So runs the tale historical),
His doting dad betook the lad
(A custom that those ancients had)
To interview the oracle.
Rain, the story by W. Somerset Maugham of Sadie Thompson and the missionary, Reverend Davidson,
On the isle of Pago Pago,
land of palm trees, rice and sago,
Where the Chinaman and Dago
dwell with natives dusky hued,
Lived a dissolute and shady,
bold adventuress named Sadie,
Sadie Thompson was the lady,
and the life she lived was lewd.
and The Three Sisters Karamazov.
THE THREE CHERRY SISTERS KARAMAZOV
His name was Boris Makaloff
Alexis Gregor Mackaloff,
His neighbors called him Grisha
In their quaintly Russian style.
His life was sad but lecherous
Mid landscape bleak and treacherous
Where Nevsky Prospekt pleases
And only man is vile.
If you want the full text of these and other songs from his poems, and the music that I have set them to, you can look here.
Newman is said to have replied to George Gershwin’s question “I wonder if my music will be played a hundred years from now?” with the answer, “Yes, if you’re around to play it!” Quite a wit, he deserves to be better known to a later generation.