Although best-known for his work in musical theater, Jacques Levy was also an occasional lyrical collaborator of rock icons Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. Born in New York City on July 29, 1935, Levy graduated…
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Jacques Levy Biography

by Jason Ankeny

Although best-known for his work in musical theater, Jacques Levy was also an occasional lyrical collaborator of rock icons Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. Born in New York City on July 29, 1935, Levy graduated from the Big Apple's City College in 1956, earning his PhD in clinical psychology from Michigan State University five years later. After several years spent practicing at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, he returned to New York to indulge his longtime love of theater, first earning critical notice in early 1966 directing a production of Sam Shepard's Red Cross at the legendary Judson Poets Theater. Levy's breakthrough was his production of Jean-Claude van Itallie's controversial anti-Vietnam War screed America Hurrah, which premiered off-Broadway at the Pocket Theater on November 7, 1966 and proceeded to run in excess of 700 performances in addition to earning the director an Obie Award. At the same time, he was also an active member of Joseph Chaikin's experimental troupe the Open Theater, and in 1967 also helmed Bruce Jay Friedman's Scuba Duba off-Broadway.

Following the 1968 abolition of Britain's Lord Chamberlain's powers of censorship over his country's national theater, critic Kenneth Tynan immediately began plotting to fully maximize this newfound creative freedom, authoring the full-frontal nude revue Oh! Calcutta! with financing from London strip-joint magnate Paul Raymond. Tynan recruited Levy to direct the musical's Broadway production, which premiered to rave reviews and sold-out audiences on June 17, 1969 and did not close until August 12, 1972. During the run of Oh! Calcutta!, Levy befriended the Byrds frontman McGuinn, collaborating on a psychedelic update of Ibsen's Peer Gynt that they dubbed Gene Tryp. Although producers David Merrick and Don Kirshner both expressed interest in the project, it was never brought to the stage, although many of its songs -- among them the hit "Chestnut Mare," "Just a Season," "Lover of the Bayou" and "All the Things" -- later appeared on Byrds' LPs. Levy also contributed lyrics to several McGuinn solo efforts, including 1973's Roger McGuinn, 1976's Cardiff Rose and 1977's Thunderbyrd.

While in the Greenwich Village club the Other End in 1975, Levy was approached by Bob Dylan, who'd been impressed by "Chestnut Mare" and suggested they collaborate -- the two men immediately absconded for Levy's nearby loft, where they completed that half-finished Dylan composition that would become the brilliant "Isis." Levy fostered and amplified the innate narrative drama in Dylan's songs, and together they co-authored close to a dozen songs, seven of which appeared on Dylan's 1975 album Desire; perhaps most notable was the stirring "Hurricane," written in response to the racially-motivated murder arrest of championship boxer Rubin Carter -- when issued as a single, "Hurricane" would become Dylan's final Top 40 hit for many a season. Levy also helped Dylan conceptualize and stage his now-legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, an all-star concert tour later immortalized on the fifth volume of the singer's Bootleg Series. His lyrics were also recorded by singers as far-ranging as Carly Simon, Crystal Gayle, Joe Cocker and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Levy revived Oh! Calcutta! on September 24, 1976 -- the updated production ran until August 6, 1989 which, combined with the original, translated into some 7,273 performances in all. However, his next major directorial effort, Almost an Eagle, closed after just three nights in mid-December of 1982; his musical comedy version of Garry Trudeau's daily comic strip Doonesbury fared only marginally better, premiering on November 21, 1983 and closing on February 19, 1984. The successive failures precipitated a lengthy hiatus from the stage, and in 1992 Levy accepted an offer to head Colgate University's Theater Program. He returned to off-Broadway in 1999, co-directing Exact Change with Jim Nielsen; Brecht on Brecht followed a year later, and in 2002 he helmed Robert Remington Wood's The Bridge in Scarsdale. After a battle with cancer, Levy passed away in New York on September 30, 2004. He was 69 years old.

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