Obituary: Mitch Leigh / Broadway composer of 'Man of La Mancha'

Jan. 30, 1928 - March 16, 2014

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One day in 1964, a New York advertising-jingle composer in his early 30s received an unlikely job offer.

The composer, Mitch Leigh, the Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish furrier from Ukraine, had no theater experience to speak of. All he had ever done was compose incidental music for a couple of short-lived Broadway comedies -- "Too True to Be Good" (1963) and "Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory" (1964). Now he was being asked to write the music for a new show that was going to try out at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. A few numbers about quests and wine and beautiful women. So Leigh gave it a shot.

The show, "Man of La Mancha," opened in New York the next year and ran until 1971, a total of 2,328 performances. It won five Tony Awards, including best composer and lyricist (Mr. Leigh and Joe Darion) and best musical. Richard Kiley remained throughout the entire run in the dual role of Don Quixote, a doddering gentleman knight with a grand imagination, and Quixote's creator, the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.

Mr. Leigh, who never had another Broadway hit, died Sunday in New York, said his daughter, Rebecca Leigh. He was 86.

"Man of La Mancha" has appeared on countless stages around the globe (Jacques Brel played the lead in France), has become a staple of U.S. regional theater, was transformed into a 1972 film starring Peter O'Toole and has enjoyed four Broadway revivals.

The show's soaring signature number, "The Impossible Dream" -- whose lyrics refer to fighting "for the right, without question or pause" and being "willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause" -- has been recorded by scores of artists, including Frank Sinatra and Placido Domingo. It was sung at the memorial service of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy by Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of the most recent revival.

The New York Times' 2002 review of a production described the song, pointedly and with some weariness, as "one of the most pervasive anthems of uplift in showbiz history and a song that will presumably wail on for as long as there are piano bars."

Born Irwin Michnick on Jan. 30, 1928, Mr. Leigh grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, served in the Army and attended Yale University on the GI Bill, receiving his bachelor's degree in music in 1951 and his master's, also in music, the following year.

He never apologized for working in advertising, and he did not give it up just because he had a couple of Tonys on his mantel.

"I'll write anything; I don't want to judge its form," he told The Chicago Daily News Service in 1966.

In fact, in a 1962 interview in The New York Herald Tribune, he contended: "There's more musical freedom on Madison Avenue than anywhere else. It's an Eden for a composer."

Among other clients, he wrote jingles for L&M cigarettes, Ken-L Ration dog food and Consolidated Foods, which became the Sara Lee Corp. The lyrics "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" were written by a Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising executive; the music was Mr. Leigh's.

He wrote the music for several more Broadway shows, including "Cry for Us All" (1970), "Home Sweet Homer" (1976) and "Sarava" (1979), but they all closed after painfully short runs. He did go on to produce the 1983 Broadway revival of "Mame," starring Angela Lansbury, and to direct the 1985 revival of "The King and I," with Yul Brynner. Mr. Leigh's last original contribution was the music for "Ain't Broadway Grand," a musical comedy about the producer Mike Todd, which ran for three weeks at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 1993.


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