Remembering Levy: Colgate Honors a Cultural Icon



May, Andrew

On Saturday evening, Colgate students, professors and alums gathered together in Brehmer Theater to listen to a reading of a play entitled A Cold Shattered Light to honor the memory of Jacques Levy, who headed Colgate’s Theater department for 12 years. Levy, who died of cancer in September, was regarded as one of popular culture’s renaissance men, known for his work as a Broadway director and for his lyrical collaborations with Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. A Cold Shattered Light, written by Christian Greer ’99, explores the strain between politics and family life in today’s media-saturated, politically-divided culture. The play takes place in Washington D.C. where Rebecca and John Austin (played by Carolyn Fischer ’00 and Kieran Campion ’99) are coping with their daughter Katie’s homosexuality (Carrie Flynn ’99) in the midst of Rebecca’s plans to run for the United States Senate. Filled with overtones of the recent 2004 Presidential election, ideological differences stifle the Austin family and pit their love for one and other against their political loyalties. The play is the fifth production by the Bobik Arts Ensemble, which Levy helped found in 2000.”We really owe this theater company’s existence to Jacques,” remarked Greer, who considers the play a work in progress. “I’m really happy that we could honor him in this way.”At the reception that followed, friends and colleagues praised the man who touched so many of their lives. “Jacques really helped me advance and improve my persona and ability,” remarked Kieran Campion ’99, who has been working as an actor since he left Colgate. “Tonight’s reading was a real [celebration of] what he meant to all of us.””Just watching Jacques was an inspiration,” added Tara Meddaugh ’99, who played the role of a snooping Fox News reporter in the play. “I don’t think I can find the words to describe what he meant to me.””I was really glad that this event happened,” agreed senior Nick Thielen. “It was exactly what Jacques would have wanted.”Because the readers included both alumni as well as those still active at Colgate, a complete production of A Cold Shattered Light was not a feasible task. Nevertheless, most in attendance agreed that the lack of stage blocking did not significantly detract from the play’s vitality. “The readers really made the story come alive,” sophomore Kevin Barber said.While the play was selected because of its affiliation with the Bobik Arts Ensemble rather than its content, most agreed that the spirit of the evening was most important. “I think the overtones of the play would have definitely been up Jacques’ alley,” Campion observed. “But to show all the people he influenced I think says a lot more.”Although Levy’s influence at Colgate was incredibly profound, his legacy extends far beyond the narrow borders of Hamilton. A clinical psychologist for several years, Levy became involved in off-Broadway and regional theater production in the 1960s including Red Cross and America Hurrah. In 1969, Levy made his Broadway debut, directing the controversial musical Oh! Calcutta! written by Ken Tynan. Described as “elegant erotica,” Oh! Calcutta! ran for 13 years with a brief hiatus, for a total of 7,273 performances. The production earned Levy a Grammy nomination. Levy’s successful direction of Oh! Calcutta! attracted the attention of Roger McGuinn of the The Byrds, who asked Levy to help him co-write a rock musical entitled Gene Tryp. While the musical was never produced, the songs McGuinn and Levy wrote together appeared on various albums by the Byrds including, Chestnute Mare and Just a Season. Levy also contributed to McGuinn’s first solo EP in 1973. In the summer of 1975, Levy met Bob Dylan in New York and Dylan suggested a possible collaboration. Pleased with Levy’s lyrical contributions on Dylan’s song “Isis,” Dylan asked Levy to spend time with him at his summer home on Long Island so that the two could write more songs together. Although Dylan had released his acclaimed album Blood on the Tracks only six months prior, his excitement about working with Levy prompted him to write and record the album Desire immediately on the heals of his previous release. Of the nine tracks on the album, Levy co-wrote seven of them, including “Hurricane,” which told the story of heavyweight boxer Rubin Carter, who had been wrongfully accused of murder. Carter’s story has since been made into a movie – the Academy Award-nominated Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington. Levy’s theatrical influence can be clearly seen in the opening lyrics to Hurricane, which sound like stage directions: “Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night. Enter Patty Valentine from the other hall. She sees the bartender in a pool of blood. Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”In addition to his work with McGuinn and Dylan, Levy’s lyrics have also been recorded by Carly Simon, Joe Cocker and Jerry Lee Lewis. After touring for several years with Dylan, Levy returned to the theater world. In search of new and creative ideas, Levy wrote and produced the musical Doonesbury in 1983, based on the popular cartoon. Five years later, Levy wrote the lyrics to Fame: The Musical, of which there are still currently 40 productions touring across the world. Academia beckoned Levy, however, and he began to teach playwriting and directing at New York University, Columbia and Yale in the late 1980s, eventually winding up at Colgate in 1992. “Whenever he would open a play, we would go to the Colgate Inn,” recalls Professor of English Margret Mauer, who played the part of Abigail in the reading of A Cold Shattered Light. “Jacques would order a Scotch and say, ‘It’s always the same problem, Margret. Should I teach or should I direct?'” In his lifetime Jacques Levy did both – but for those who assembled in Brehmer Saturday night to honor his memory, it is Levy’s legacy as a teacher that will be remembered most dearly.