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A Way With Words : With 'Once Upon a Mattress' as a cushion, songwriter Marshall Barer sings his own praises and lyrics.

February 26, 1993|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Don Heckman writes regularly about music for The Times.

Songwriter Marshall Barer has a simple, to-the-point, and typically tongue-in-cheek way of describing himself.

"Just call me the irrepressible, wafer-thin, rapier-keen, Anglo-sexual, psycho-Semitic, almost unbearably gifted Marshall Barer," he says with laugh.

Less well-known to the general music audience than he should be, Barer--who, at the very least, should be celebrated for his whimsically twisted sense of humor--will observe his 70th birthday Sunday with a rare local appearance at a Parlor Performance concert in Sherman Oaks. The program, which is open to the public, takes place at a private home.

Singer/songwriter Babbie Green (and daughter of "Body and Soul" composer Johnny Green) is one of Barer's many admirers in the music business. "It's a privilege," she says, "to be allowed to listen in on Marshall's romance with words. I've been a fan since the first time I heard his songs from 'Once Upon a Mattress.' "

Fred Ebb, of Kandor & Ebb, the team that created "Cabaret," says that "Marshal Barer has always been the lyric writer I would hope to be some day."

Despite the relative unfamiliarity of his name, few people are unaware of Barer's best-known work, the musical "Once Upon a Mattress," written with composer Mary Rodgers. Since its premiere in 1959, with Carol Burnett playing the lead, the show has become a staple of amateur productions.

"Next to 'Oklahoma,' " says Barer, "it's the most-produced musical. And the funny thing is that it wasn't that successful in the beginning. But amateurs gradually picked up on it, and it seems to work very well for them.

"On the 25th anniversary of the show in 1984, I discovered that there had been 15,000 individual productions--not just performances, but productions. And there have been another 10,000 since then."

Which represents quite an annuity for a songwriter who--despite the great affection for his works among such artists as Michael Feinstein and Andrea Marcovicci--has written a vast fund of songs and theater pieces that have never seen the light of day.

Barer's other produced musicals have not been nearly so fortunate as "Mattress."

"La Belle," based on the music of Offenbach, did well in Boston and closed in Philadelphia. "Pousse Cafe," written with Duke Ellington's music, did only a little better.

"I wrote 60 some songs with Ellington," Barer recalls. "It was five years in the making, and three dismal nights on Broadway before it closed."

Barer has had considerably more success with material for reviews such as "New Faces of '56" and the "Ziegfeld Follies of '57," as well as some other pieces distinctly unrelated to Broadway.

"I also wrote the 'Mighty Mouse' theme song--some claim to fame, huh?" he asks. "I'm actually not all that proud of it. I wrote it in the back of a taxi cab. But it's great when I tell people about it, and they respond with a gasp, 'You wrote the "Mighty Mouse" theme song!?'

A native of West Palm Beach, Fla., Barer moved to New York while still a teen-ager. His initial goal was to become a commercial artist, and the prospects looked bright.

"I worked in the art department at Esquire magazine for quite a while," he recalls, "and I even illustrated the Esquire Jazz Book of 1946. It was fun, and I might have stayed with it, but it just wasn't as important as theater was to me."

In 1971, Barer relocated to the West Coast. But Hollywood may not have been ready for his ever-present wit.

Convinced that the musical phase of his career lay behind him, he opened an art gallery. Then he met Michael Feinstein.

"We had a lot in common," says Barer. "There was the whole Gershwin thing. And, also, around the same time, there was sort of a trend back to more interesting, more classic kinds of material--you know, like the Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon albums. And Michael was also generating attention by playing the same kind of material. Well, he started doing my songs; then Andrea Marcovicci started doing them, and suddenly I had a music career again."

Feinstein describes him in glowing terms: "Writing from the tradition of Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg, but with a contemporary sensibility, Marshal Barer is, in my opinion, the best living American lyricist."

More recently, Barer has moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he is living on his royalties from "Mattress," working on a novel and happily trying to instigate further performances of his 4,000-plus songs.

"I believe in the Oscar Wilde aesthetic which says that life itself is an art," he explained. "And so my surroundings are as much a part of my expression as anything I do. My house is like an installation of my art. I'm forever changing it, and I consider it just as much an expression of myself as anything I write."

But he is equally delighted to have the opportunity to sing his songs. "In all honesty," Barer said, "I think I do them better than most people."

Where and When What: Marshall Barer's Birthday Concert, a Parlor Performances which are presented in private homes throughout Los Angeles. Location: 3937 Sumac Drive, Sherman Oaks. Hours: Sunday at 5 and 8 p.m. Price: $17.50 and $20. Call: (310) 471-3979.

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