NEW YORK — "The great gift of this show is seeing people who I've worked with over 50 years and knowing I'm still here," composer Jule Styne said of taking part in a public-television special focusing on his long and illustrious career.
The two-hour program, "Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne," is scheduled to be seen on "Great Performances" at 8 tonight on KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles. It also airs Friday at 8 p.m. on (24) and at 9 p.m. on (15), and Saturday at 9:15 p.m. (50).
Styne, 81, who appears and performs at the piano throughout the show, said he worked closely with director Joe Layton to develop a concept that would make the program more lively and dramatic than standard musical tributes.
"We wanted it to be a living show," Styne said in a recent interview, sitting at the piano in his memento-filled Fifth Avenue apartment.
Starting with a young boy playing Haydn at the piano, the special takes viewers on an autobiographical journey with Styne, from his aspiration at age 10 to be a classical pianist, to his days as a big-band leader in Chicago, to the Hollywood film career that produced six Oscar-nominated and one Oscar-winning song ("Three Coins in the Fountain"), to the Broadway career that brought him to the height of his fame with shows such as "Funny Girl," "Gypsy," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
In addition to film clips from the Hollywood versions of these shows, the "Broadway Sings" features reminiscences by Styne's collaborators, including Sammy Cahn, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. Performing the composer's work are such Broadway stars as Carol Channing, Hal Linden, Maurice Hines, Chita Rivera and Donna McKechnie.
Styne said he suggested the performers and their roles in the special. For instance, he wanted a man, Jack Jones, to sing "People," from "Funny Girl," for a change; and he wanted Melissa Manchester to sing "His Is the Music That Makes Me Dance," a song removed from the film version of "Gypsy," as an example of what he termed "Hollywood's mistreatment of my music."
He also asked that a film clip of Ethel Merman singing "Rose's Turn," from "Gypsy," not be included, because he thought the image of the late singer cast a "pall of gloom over the show."
Styne, who was at various times charming, witty and caustic but at all times plain-spoken, said he also insisted that the conclusion of the program be changed. He explained that in the original version, the late Judy Holliday was seen in a film clip singing "The Party's Over."
"For God's sake, she's dead, and you can't put a dead person at the end of the show," Styne recalled telling the producers when he saw the original version.
As though to underscore his own liveliness, Styne reported that he presently is working on several projects.
In addition to a musical version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," which already has been produced in Canada and which is due to be staged at the Seattle Repertory Co., later this year, Styne said he has written a 1940s-style musical, "The Bar Mitzvah Boy," due to be produced Off Broadway later this spring.
And he said he is now trying to acquire the rights to a Paul Gallico story, "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," and to the 1957 film version of "Sweet Smell of Success." He said his plans for a musical version of the film call for the columnist role played by Burt Lancaster to be portrayed by a woman.
"I can't see myself sitting around with a cup of tea, doing nothing," Styne said sharply when reminded that others at his point in life might choose to retire. "I love to work. I'm only unhappy when I'm not doing anything."
Referring to the changing times and styles of music, especially in the Broadway theater, Styne acknowledged that his efforts "can be frustrating. But I can't stop writing. I'll either get it on or I won't, but at least I'll have the satisfaction of practicing my craft."