In "The Simpsons," voice actor Dan Castellaneta brings to life Homer Simpson and legions* of other characters.
But now -- in the new play "For Piano and Harpo" at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank -- he's bringing back to life a celebrity who died in 1972. Who? "It's Oscar Levant, you musical ignoramus!"
Oscar Levant was an actor and a classically trained pianist who trained under Arnold Schoenberg. He wrote the music for more than twenty movies, and the standard Blame it On My Youth. He co-starred in "An American In Paris," holding his own with Gene Kelly:
Levant's intelligence and acidic wit was legendary. Castellaneta says in his many movies, Levant always played the wise-cracking best friend, never the leading man. "He joked one time on the Fred Allen Show, 'If it's an B-picture, I play the piano. If it's an A-picture, I move the piano." Levant was an very popular guest on radio and TV shows, and Peter Sagal assures me he would have been a regular on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." But now, he's mostly forgotten. Levant died in 1972 at the age of 65.
Castellaneta says he knew a little about Oscar Levant from movies like "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Fred Allen Show, and his wife (the actor Deb Lacusta) knew a lot more. But Castellaneta, who is active in theater, was especially struck by a passage in "Harpo Speaks!" by Harpo Marx.
"There's a scene where Harpo's having a dinner party and he gets a call. The guy on the line says 'How do I get to your house from here?' Harpo says, 'Who is this?' and the guy says, 'Well it's Oscar Levant, you musical ignoramus!' So Oscar crashed the party and ended up staying there for a year and a month. I read somewhere that Oscar said it was only four months."
So was born "For Piano and Harpo." "I thought this would make for a really interesting play about these two characters. Oscar Levant is a misanthrope, very neurotic. Whereas Harpo seems to be one of the most healthy people. But they were both attracted to each other, probably because like Oscar, Harpo was a loose cannon."
The play speaks to the darker side of Levant's life and career. Dan says, "He was one of the first celebrities to be open about their struggle with mental illness and drug addiction. His terrible years were really after his time as a touring concert pianist... in the late 1940s to late 1950s." He just couldn't handle performing in public. When Castellaneta was researching the book, he says "I spoke with a couple psychiatrists, and they said he was probably bipolar. And in those days they didn't really know how to treat it; the best they could do was to try to give him sedatives to calm them down."
And so in "For Piano and Harpo," Levant wakes up in the psych ward of Mt. Sinai Hospital and has to deal with the demons of his past and present and characters including Jack Paar, George Gershwin, his long-suffering wife June, and Harpo. (Listen to the audio player to hear Castellaneta and Oscar, Deb Lacusta as June, and Jonathan Stark as Jack Parr run lines exclusively for Off-Ramp.)
Previews for "For Piano and Harpo" at the Falcon Theater in Burbank (4252 Riverside, Burbank, CA 91505) start Feb. 1. The show runs through Mar. 5. Tickets range from $30-$45. The cast is Dan Castellaneta, JD Cullum, Deb Lacusta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, and Jonathan Stark. David O is the music supervisor, scenic design by Stephen Gifford, lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier, costumes by Kate Bergh, and sound by Drew Dalzell.
*Homer Simpson, Abraham "Grampa" Simpson, Barney Gumble, Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Mel, Groundskeeper Willie, Mayor Quimby, and Hans Moleman ... and many, many more.