Edwin Lester, who is having a very large birthday party April 15 at the Music Center, was born 90 years ago.
For 40 of these 90 years, he ran the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Assn. with a nimble mind, impeccable ethics, a suit and tie--and a hand of steel in a white kid glove.
From the time that he founded the LACLO in the mid-'30s until his official retirement in 1977, his organization flourished and grew, becoming the most commercially successful and heavily subscribed musical theater enterprise in the nation with a bank balance of $2.5 million. It also brought Lester recognition as the most powerful single civilizing force in the life of the musical theater on the West Coast.
Lester, who was born in New York City and grew up in Providence, R.I., gave early warning signs. A career as a child soprano ended abruptly when his voice changed. Unfazed, he landed a job as pianist, conductor and director of entertainment at Detroit's Cafe Frontenac on sheer seat-of-the-pants showmanship.
He was 19 years old.
His own artistic ambitions stemmed by a crack in the voice, Lester indulged his love of singing by managing other singers. To provide work for them during slow periods, he created a Civic Light Opera--and opened the floodgates to a producing career that was to combine coaching (some say bullying), entrepreneurial ingenuity, artistic acumen and salesmanship (a talent he'd refined while selling pianos for the Platt Music Co.).
During the prodigious Lester regime, LACLO never used a discounted ticket and saw to it that subscribers were treated with absolute respect. All letters were answered personally--either by him or by a member of the staff.
It was the Age of Chivalry.
A few days ago, Edwin Lester settled back in his office above the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--an office he visits three times a week--and spoke about the musical theater, then and now.
Question: You've been in the business for more than 50 years. What are the two or three major factors that, in your view, have altered musical comedy down the years?
Answer: The Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership, which started around 1942 and led to "Oklahoma!," developed into a succession of almost all hits. I discovered that most potently in my oral biography for UCLA when I was asked to name what I considered the 15 best musicals of all time.
I named the first 13 and then it became difficult. But the first 13 included five Rodgers and Hammerstein works: "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I"--which I consider the "Hamlet" of the musical theater--and "Sound of Music."
There was a thoroughness to the way they did things, a tremendous compatibility between them. Oscar would write a lyric complete as a poem. When he brought it to Dick, it already had the feeling of music.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein shows created a whole generation in the musical theater, much of it based on good singing. You want good dancing, color, atmosphere, personality, but good singing is the key--particularly to longevity, because people remember music, but they don't remember lyrics or book unless it was a team like Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hart, or Rodgers and Hammerstein.
When you became involved in production in the '30s, the emphasis was on operetta--book musicals with happy endings and a great emphasis on musicality. Now the vision is darker and the emphasis on technical extravaganzas, such as "Dreamgirls" and "Cats." The designer seems as important as the composer-lyricist and more important than the book writer. Is it so?
I don't quite agree that anything is more important than the book. In the early years, music was the only thing and it was not unusual for people to come to the box office to buy tickets for a show, humming its principal hit.
Longevity is my measurement when we speak of greatness. Shakespeare is the greatest because his work has lent itself so well to revival. All over the world.
What about a show like "Cats"?
I haven't seen it yet, so I have no opinion. I do know all about it. It's a great novelty. It has some great poetry back of it, because (T. S.) Eliot certainly knew how to write. (Andrew Lloyd) Webber is certainly a first-class composer in the modern idiom, but I don't think that idiom's going to live. Even in the symphonic field, very few of the moderns are played a great deal. At the same time, year after year, decade after decade, people still go to hear the Beethoven, the Brahms, the Bach. . . .