Ben Bagley

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b. 18 October 1933, Burlington, Vermont, USA, d. 21 March 1998, New York, USA. A record and theatre producer and director, Bagley is chiefly remembered by lovers of the musical theatre for his Revisited…
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b. 18 October 1933, Burlington, Vermont, USA, d. 21 March 1998, New York, USA. A record and theatre producer and director, Bagley is chiefly remembered by lovers of the musical theatre for his Revisited albums. These contain forgotten gems, songs composed by the leading stage and film composers of the century that were either cut from the productions for which they were intended, or swamped by more apparently attractive compositions. Ben Bagley came from a musical background: his maternal grandfather was the conductor of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra until it became a victim of the early 30s Depression, and his mother had been a concert pianist before she married Bagley’s father. Both of his parents were fond of Broadway musicals, and Bagley was introduced to show tunes via the sheet music they would bring back from their trips to New York. He moved to New York himself at the age of 16, and worked for publishers McGraw Hill as an office boy. Five years later, backed by Marian and Judson Todd, millionaire owners of steamship yards, Bagley produced his first show, The Shoestring Revue (1955). This was followed a year later by The Littlest Revue (1956), and Shoestring ’57. The latter opened with the overture to My Fair Lady - that is, until Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe learned of it. All three of these off-Broadway productions were well received by the critics (although they were not long-runners), and featured sketches and songs by a group of young, talented writers, including Sheldon Harnick, Vernon Duke, Lee Adams, John Latouche, Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt, Charles Strouse, Ogden Nash, and Arthur Siegel. Their material was performed by up-and-coming artists such as Beatrice Arthur, Dody Goodman, Chita Rivera, Nancy Walker, Joel Grey, Strouse, Tammy Grimes, and Charlotte Rae.

Arthur Siegel was an important element in the next phase in Bagley’s career - the records. Reportedly, when Bagley was hospitalized with tuberculosis, Siegel sent tapes of himself singing rare show songs. They gave the patient the idea for a series of albums, the first of which, Rodgers And Hart Revisited, was released in 1960. Dorothy Loudon, Danny Meehan, Rae and Cy Young sang the songs, which were beautifully arranged by Norman Paris. All the selections were fresh and exciting, but outstanding were Loudon’s ‘At The Roxy Music Hall’, from I Married An Angel (1938), and Charlotte Rae’s ‘Everybody Loves You’ (1937, cut from I’d Rather Be Right before its opening). The second album celebrated little-known numbers by Cole Porter, which led to Bagley’s final, and longest-running, show, The Decline And Fall Of The Entire World As Seen Through The Eyes Of Cole Porter (1965). It starred Kaye Ballard, Harold Lang, William Hickey, and Carmen Alvarez, and proved to be the forerunner of a genre that would eventually include composer anthology shows such as Side By Side By Sondheim, Smokey Joe’s Café (Leiber And Stoller), And The World Goes ‘Round (John Kander and Fred Ebb), and Sophisticated Ladies (Duke Ellington). As for the Revisited albums, there were some 50 in all, mainly on Bagley’s own Painted Smiles label, and dedicated to Arthur Schwartz, Noël Coward, Alan Jay Lerner, De Sylva, Brown And Henderson, Frank Loesser, Vernon Duke, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, et al. Some composers were revisited several times, and Bagley was an expert in persuading singers of the calibre of Bobby Short, Blossom Dearie, Barbara Cook, Margaret Whiting, Johnny Desmond, Grimes, Elaine Stritch, David Allyn, and Ballard to perform for hardly any money. Katharine Hepburn contributed her inimitable rendering of Porter’s ‘Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby’ for free, and she was only one of a number of more unlikely participants in Bagley’s enterprise. Among the others not exactly renowned for their vocalizing were Rhonda Fleming, Laurence Harvey, Anthony Perkins, Joanne Woodward, and Gloria Swanson. During the last years of his life, Bagley spent much of his time supervising the transfer of his albums, complete with his own highly distinctive liner notes and a pictures of his beloved cat Emily, to CD. His most successful stage project, The Decline And Fall Of The Entire World As Seen Through The Eyes Of Cole Porter, was revived on the London Fringe in August 1998, a few months after his death.