American lyricist and librettist John Latouche’s versatile and oftentimes saucy work still resonates with today’s listeners. Though he is far from a household name, theatre and opera-goers cherish his major works, like Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” which kicked off the 2018 – 2019 opera season at the Moores School of Music (MSM). But Latouche was more than just his wit and work. He was also an erratic man who missed deadlines, showed up to meetings unprepared or not at all. Howard Pollack captures Latouche’s complex, glamorous and all-too-brief life in his book “The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work.”
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Foundation awarded Pollack, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Music at the University of Houston, the 2018 Timothy White Award for Outstanding Music Biography. Created in honor of the late Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White, this is the fourth award Pollack has received from ASCAP over the years.
“Dr. Pollack is one of the most outstanding musicologists in the country,” says MSM Associate Director Jeffrey Sposato. “In addition to being phenomenal teachers, our faculty manage to find the time to create new, innovative ways to research music and really excel. The Timothy White Award cements the Moores School as a rich and growing music research hub.”
Pollack, who studies the history of music, typically writes biographies about well-known composers — like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Marc Blitzstein. But he was drawn to the lesser known Latouche who, before his early death at age 41, wrote many brilliant song lyrics for popular Broadway composers and even created a handful of award-winning opera librettos. Pollack wanted to learn more about this writer who worked with some of the most outstanding theatre composers of his day. In the course of his research, he also discovered that Latouche’s friends included dozens of the most notable actors, writers, painters and musicians of his time.
“It turned out that I had stumbled on a very delightful character, a great wit who lived a pretty wild life,” says Pollack. “People adored him for his vitality and exuberance.”
As he dove into his research, Pollack found that Latouche never really fulfilled his great potential, partly because of his early death and his impish, unpredictable temperament. For example, composer Kurt Weill gave up on Latouche because he’d always turn up to their meetings with a hangover. Leonard Bernstein also became exasperated with his behavior, firing Latouche before they completed “Candide.”
Pollack says, “Although I have received various awards for several of my previous books, it was particularly gratifying to receive one for a book about so neglected if brilliant a figure.”