30 October 2009

Miles Kreuger & the Institute of the American Musical

All Singing! All Dancing!
Ethel Merman and a few friends.
Miles Kreuger knows what show this is from.

Though I have yet to make a complete inspection, I have been assured that the collections of the Institute of the American Musical fill 17 rooms. Even a quick glance at Miles Kreuger’s headquarters suggests that another five rooms may be in order: the place is carpeted and furnished with memorabilia. Books are shelved in double decks, file cabinets creak under the weight of scripts, correspondence, and other archival documents, photographs practically paper the walls, and a massive cabinet contains nothing but original-cast albums — every original-cast album, ever. Many feature liner notes by Kreuger himself.

In conversation, Kreuger has but little need for his archives: he happily cites from memory names, dates, addresses, and every kind of statistic, even phone numbers long since disconnected. He remembers with extraordinarily vivid clarity the precise details of the first show he ever saw on Broadway — when he was four years old.

Kreuger, right, with the sublime Nanette Fabray

As young Miles prated on, asking his grandmother about the purpose of the stage curtain and why the musicians were punished by being thrown into the pit, a woman remarked, “Imagine! Bringing a child of that age to the theater! He’ll do nothing but talk and talk!”

“Look who’s talking,” replied little Miles.

The play in question, he informs me, was Knights of Song, about Gilbert & Sullivan, whose work Miles was already learning by heart. Nigel Bruce starred as W.S. Gilbert, and the play ran (very briefly) at the Fifty-first Street Theatre, one of the most ornate venues in New York.

Years later, on that same stage — by then renamed the Mark Hellinger Theatre — Miles missed out on what should have been his big break as a performer. While he was working as an assistant on a new musical adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, director Moss Hart and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner asked him to audition in the producer's office. They liked what they heard, and the part was his. But once arrived at the Hellinger, Miles was overwhelmed by the vastness of the auditorium, so much bigger than his college theater, and he chickened out.

That’s how he didn’t create the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews still teases him about the incident, he says. (“If you hadn’t been so shy, we could have worked together for two years!”)

The Hellinger

So much for the street where we lived. The Hellinger didn’t bring me much luck, either: that’s where Rags played its four performances, in 1986. Today, the theater is owned and occupied by the Times Square Church.

Many of the great theaters of Broadway are gone, and their only remnants are in Miles Kreuger’s home: just inside the front door are two seats from the old Empire Theatre. (Not the multiplex cinema on 42nd Street, but the legit theater on Broadway and 40th.) “These seats saw Maude Adams in Peter Pan,” Kreuger observes. He can recite whole catalogues of lost treasures, and the changing cityscape, he says, is why he moved away: “By 1978, there wasn’t a trace of New York City left,” he says. “Times Square was gone. Penn Station was gone.” He decided to move to Los Angeles.

Kreuger is such a New York type (who can drive, but doesn’t), and his subject so Broadway-centric, that Los Angeles seems an unlikely destination for him. However, he’s quick to remind a visitor that Hollywood made important contributions to the American musical, too. Lest we forget, Judy Garland never appeared in a Broadway play.

I first met Kreuger when I worked at the Kurt Weill Foundation — he remembers Railroads on Parade, Weill’s contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair — and he was a guiding force behind John McGlinn’s recording of Show Boat, on which Teresa Stratas sings “Bill” (to me, need I point out). We were long overdue to get reacquainted, and my research into the career of Madeline Kahn provided the perfect opportunity. (Indeed, Miles welcomes any qualified researcher to the Institute, and provides advice and other assistance in addition to access to the collections.)

When our conversation touched on Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, an homage to Cole Porter in which Madeline co-starred, I learned that Kreuger knew Porter and had introduced Bogdanovich to some of his songs. Kreuger wrote the liner notes for the soundtrack album, too. But the movie was a failure, Madeline and Bogdanovich never worked together again, and the recording is a collector’s item of which she herself owned no copy, and on which I’ve never set eyes.

Maude Adams did it differently:
Jerome Robbins and Mary Martin rehearse Peter Pan

Mostly, we talked about New York, and the remarkable personalities Kreuger knew there. To cite but one example: freshly graduated from Bard College at age 20, he worked with Helen Hayes, Lena Horne, Ezio Pinza, and Ruth Draper. (Not a bad start.) And one more example: Goddard Lieberson’s secretary sounded so much like an Elaine May character that at first Kreuger thought Mike Nichols (who’d told him to call the legendary record producer) was playing a trick on him.

Kreuger is nostalgic for New York, certainly, yet what strikes me is how much of it he brought West with him. Not only the artifacts that surround him but the spirit he exudes. He serves as a useful role model as I try to decide where I should live — as I mourn my own “lost New York” (which I never saw until after Kreuger had left) — and as I frolic in the eerily seductive California sunshine.

And he reminds me of a scene in Diva. Jules the mailman is talking about music, and Cynthia Hawkins interrupts him. “If you didn’t exist, you would have to be invented,” she says. So it is with Miles Kreuger. Such fans are the keepers of the flame that warms the rest of us.

Kreuger’s latest project is a collection of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics.

The Institute of the American Musical has been described as “a national treasure” by Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and its vast collections are open to researchers and students by appointment. As a 501 (c)(3) not-private, not-for-profit corporation, the Institute gladly accepts donations — which are tax-deductible. For more information or to make a contribution, please write to

The Institute of the American Musical
121 North Detroit Street
Los Angeles, CA 90036-2915


Jim Holt said...

Miles is the greatest "unappreciated" treasure in American Theater or film.....the Institute is an astounding, towering achievement.....hopefully he is acquiring some tools/apprentices to keep the institute intact for future generations....

Beja19046 said...

Thank you for the informative post about Miles Kreuger. He is a wonderful example of what the power of the human spirit can accomplish!

Tony said...

I visited Miles at his apartment in L.A. some 30 years ago. My most vivid memory is when he handed me Oscar Hammerstein's prompt script for Oklahoma, in which OH had made several lyric changes in pencil.

William V. Madison said...

What a treasure you saw, Tony! And to think that Miles has so many more, just as precious!

William V. Madison said...

To David, who left a comment yesterday: I take your comment seriously, but I can't in good conscience publish it without your full name and some form of identification or contact information to put your remarks into context and to give other readers the means to challenge your assertions. Thanks for understanding.

Anonymous said...

Back in the mid-1970s I had the pleasure of visiting Miles in his apartment in, I believe, the upper West side of Manhattan. I expected to just say hello (he had come to Canada the previous year), but stayed over 4 hours talking with him. We talked about early musicals, soundtracks, the decline of New York, and many other areas of interest. I had originally met him at MOMA-I was watching an early John Ford sound film, and he was sitting beside me, jotting notes every time some music or tune came onscreen.
His apartment in New York, I think, originally belonged to his grandmother-the person who took him to Broadway shows in the early 1930s. He could remember every show he saw.
He also showed me many Vitaphone discs of films that no longer existed. He had filing cabinets full of old studio records (contracts, cast lists, etc) that were going to be thrown as garbage until he asked for them (I think it was Fox-20th Century).
The saddest memory I have was seeing his work on the complete history of American musical (both film and stage). He had already written a great deal, but had so much more to write. His book just got too massive, plus the market for film books started drying out in the mid 1980s. A tragedy!

Bob Amsterdam said...

While Miles was still in New York, in the 1970s, he invited a group of friends from Bard to see some of his treasures.
He had obtained a copy of the 1929 film "On With The Show" and played scenes for us of Ethel Waters introducing her songs "Am I Blue" and "Birmingham Bertha".
I recall that the Miles shoe chain had a brightly-lit store across from his apartment in upper Manhattan. It amused him to point out that he could see his name (Miles) in lights on Btoadway.

Bobolink said...

Did Miles ever live on Greenwich Avenue near West 10th Street around 1965?

William V. Madison said...

I have no idea! I've known him only 30 years or so.