Broadway's got a new bio-play, Good Night, Oscar, written by Doug Wright and starring Will and Grace star and Tony nominee Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant. It opens tonight, April 24, at the Belasco Theatre. For those old enough to have been watching late night TV in the '50s and '60s, Levant is a treasured personality and musical genius—but no shame to any readers who might not know exactly who Levant was!
As you're a Playbill reader, there's a good chance you'll remember Levant even if you don't necessarily know his name. His most memorable screen appearance was in 1951's An American Paris, which featured Levant as struggling pianist Adam Cook. The character is more-or-less a stand-in for George Gershwin, whose songs make up the film's soundtrack—and that makes Levant's casting especially apt. Just as Levant's career as a composer and pianist was getting started in the '20s and '30s, he met and befriended Gershwin himself. He would go on to become world renowned for his piano performances of Gershwin's works, particularly after Gershwin, himself a gifted ivory tickler, died tragically young in 1937.
His connection to Gershwin proved to be a trickier one later in Levant's life—as Good Night, Oscar delves into—but that doesn't make Levant's recordings of Gershwin's compositions any less vital.
Levant is interviewed about Gershwin and plays some of his music in this track from George Gershwin Remembered:
Levant also had a brief, but successful career on Broadway. He played a small role in a 1927 musical Burlesque, later contributing music to Ripples and Sweet and Low, both in 1930. He conducted 1938's The Fabulous Invalid and 1939's The American Way, also composing music for the latter. Both were Kaufman and Hart plays—yes, dear reader, plays in the 1930s featured live orchestras with conductors. Can you imagine?
As a composer, Levant spent most of his energies in Hollywood, writing music for more than 20 films. He also had some success as a popular songwriter, the most enduring of his catalog being "Blame It On My Youth," a standard still being covered today.
But it was the emergence of Levant as an entertainment personality that made him a household name. In fact, Levant was a renaissance man throughout his life, straddling careers as a musician, conductor, composer, actor—pretty much any job he could get his hands on in the entertainment industry. A huge part of his appearl was his acerbic and self-deprecating wit, which made him a cherished invite to swanky parties in New York and Los Angeles. Among his most famous quotes: "What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left." "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm schizophrenic, and so am I." "I'm controversial. My friends either dislike me or hate me." (Many of these lines you can hear delivered by Sean Hayes with pitch-perfect comedic timing in Good Night, Oscar.)
When late-night talk shows became a mainstay of after-dark TV, Levant called on that trademark wit to reinvent himself yet again as the preeminent talk show guest. He was sure to make audiences laugh, sitting down to a piano afterwards to offer a world-class performance on the fly. Even before late night TV, he had become a frequent panelist on radio quiz show Information Please, and later on TV game shows like Who Said That? and What's My Line. He also hosted his own variety show from 1958 to 1960, The Oscar Levant Show.
Of course, as Good Night, Oscar also explores, Levant was somewhat tortured. His jokes often made light of his very real struggles with mental health and substance abuse. But we'll let you go see the play to learn more about that. It's more fun to remember Levant at his best, brimming with snappy one-liners and a song in his heart. And bonus fact: If you go to Good Night, Oscar, you'll be happy to know that Hayes does his own piano playing!
See clips from Levant on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar below:
Here in a clip from The Merv Griffin Show in 1965, Levant plays Chopin's Étude Op. 10, No. 3:
Good Night, Oscar is set in 1958, while Jack Paar is hosting The Tonight Show. He’s booked his favorite guest, Levant. In 90 minutes, Levant will have audiences howling, censors scrambling, and, when it’s all over, America will be just a little less innocent than she was before. The work premiered in 2022 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre with Hayes leading the cast. The Broadway run continues at the Belasco Theatre.
Hayes is joined by Marchánt Davis as Alvin Finney, Alex Wyse as Max Weinbaum, Emily Bergl as June Levant, Peter Grosz as Bob Sarnoff, Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar, and John Zdrojeski as George Gershwin. The production's understudies are Sam Bell-Gurwitz, Postell Pringle, Max Roll, Thomas Michael Hammond, and Stephanie Janssen.