Login failed. Please try again.

Video Published: 30 Sep 2022

An Oral History with Murray Horwitz

On February 15th, 2022, playwright, lyricist, and broadcaster Murray Horwitz sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on February 15th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Murray Horwitz, playwright, lyricist, broadcaster

Playwright, lyricist, and broadcaster Murray Horwitz has had an extraordinarily varied career in the arts, education, and public life, which started with him performing as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. His accomplishments in the performing arts include starting the phenomenally successful NPR comedy new quiz, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, winning the Tony Award for conceiving and co-writing Ain’t Misbehavin’ – the hit Broadway musical based on the music and comedy of Fats Waller – and originating The Mark Twain Prize in American Humor at the Kennedy Center. Horwitz also wrote the song lyrics for John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. He may currently be heard as an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, on NPR’s Hanukkah Lights, rebroadcasts of Piano Jazz and as a panelist on the word game show, Says You!

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: Murray, I've wanted to chat with you for a while in this project, so I start with the question of who brought you to your first opera?

Murray Horwitz: When I saw that you were gonna ask me that question, I got so excited because I know the answer. There was, as you probably know, opera in Cincinnati. It's one of the oldest regional companies in the country and it was performed at the Cincinnati Zoo. And the first operas I saw were at the zoo. My Mom was a big opera fan. My Dad's mother listened religiously to The Met broadcast every Saturday and as little kids, my older brothers, more than I, made fun of her, "Ugh, it's opera; these people, hooting and bellowing." But it was clear that it was important to grandma. And so I knew there was something going on, and I guess I must have been about 10 or so; we could look it up. But it was Aida, and for Aida in this semi-outdoor amphitheater at the Cincinnati zoo to be your first opera, was really quite some introduction. Now around the same time, there was the perfect complement to it at Antioch College, which was really quite a cultural center in Southwest Ohio. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and in the 1950's and early '60's, especially it was a cultural center. It was one of the few towns in the Midwest, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where an interracial couple could live reasonably unmolested. It was very liberal and there was theater there. William Ball and Ellis Rabb, two very famous mid-century men of the theater, kind of started out there. And, in the early 1950's they did all of Shakespeare's plays in repertory over the course of something like seven seasons, and those were the first plays I saw. And then, they would tour. They were presenters as well, and they would bring in musical acts. The Modern Jazz Quartet played there. The Step Brothers danced there. And there was one of those little family opera companies with four or five people. It was mom, dad, junior and sis', and they would do these little vest pocket versions of operas. And they did either Figaro or Cosi or some Mozart opera. And it was a very abbreviated, cutdown version of it. They were charming, and it was with piano accompaniment, and I loved it. I just thought it was great little chamber theater and music. I think Aida probably came first, 'cause that really made an impression on me. And the last thing I'll say about it is: I've used it as a kind of a comedy bit over the years, because it was in the zoo and it was by the banks of this lake and across the lake were the elephants and the lions and everything. And they would make noise during the performance. And you'd hear (sings) Celeste Aida (animal noises) in the middle of it. People went with it; it was okay.

Marc A. Scorca: The stories are incredible about what happened there with the elephants braying along with the music. And so you were there to hear it.

Murray Horwitz: Yeah. The lions are what I remember cause (animal noises)...little lion roars.

Marc A. Scorca: That is so funny. Of course that would make a great first impression. In reading your bio, there's one line that said 'your varied career'. At first, I thought it said your vivid career but I asked you who brought you to your first opera, who brought you to the Ringling Bros. Circus?

Murray Horwitz: Well, the first time and I'm one of the few people of our generation who actually saw the Ringling show under canvas: the big top. The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus which for just shy of 150 years was, with its antecedents, The Greatest Show on Earth, used to tour under what was called the big top, an enormous six pole tent with three rings. And my Mom took me to the circus in Springfield, Ohio when I was about four years old. And I have vivid memories of just sitting there and the atmosphere and the smells of inside the tent. Later when the Ringling show played ballparks, because it closed under canvas in July of 1956 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but then they started playing indoor arenas and outdoor ballparks, and I saw them in Crosley Field in Cincinnati. And I very well remember seeing Otto Griebling, the famous tramp clown, who was a master clown. I tell people, Otto was to clowning as John Milton was to English poetry. He was just (amazing). He used to work in the stands before the show (what's called the 'come in') and he would polish the handrails and I remember seeing Otto, and 14 years later, 13 years later, I was working alongside Otto in the Ringling show.

Marc A. Scorca: How did you get to work for the Ringling circus?

Murray Horwitz: Well, that's the question. Nobody brought me to the circus and said, "Hey, here's this funny kid you should make a clown out of."

Marc A. Scorca: Did you run away to the circus?

Murray Horwitz: No. Everybody asks that. Actually one of the best questions I was ever asked by an interviewer was: "Is there anybody in the circus who's not running away?" And I kind of had to raise my hand, because I got into it - God, this is a dreadful thing to admit - but almost in an academic way, because - and I tell this to young, aspiring performing artists or people who want to work in the arts (who) think, "Oh, I'm gonna go to this arts school or that conservatory." Now, if you're really an exceptional performer - you know, yes. And (if) you can get into Juilliard, you should go to Juilliard, but these kids who say, "Oh, I wanna go to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts." Well, don't do it, because it's much better to go to a small school if you can, (and you can afford it, or get the financing), and get a good general liberal arts education. Get a lab science; take some economic courses, history courses, as well as whatever you major in. And the reason for that is, if you're gonna be an artist, you have to have something to say, and you have to really know something about the world. And it's not good to judge others by yourself. But I mean, that was in many ways my savior. I've always found everything interesting. And you see a 19 year old kid who says, "Well, I'm bored." You're 19 years old and you're bored? Wake up, because the world is a fascinating place with a lot of problems and a lot of challenges and a lot of beauty and you have to know something about it. So there I was in my senior year at Kenyon College. I was an English major, but at the beginning of my senior year, I declared a second major, a drama major. My only academic distinction believe you me, but in those days, and I think still to graduate as a drama major from Kenyon, you have to do a senior thesis project, which usually means directing some snappy, witty, vapid contemporary comedy, which I was perfectly willing to do, but the faculty came to me (two people) and they said, "You know, you've always specialized in comedy. Why don't you do a one-man show of different comic characters through dramatic literature: clowns through the ages." And I started listing things that I wanted to do. This was 1969, and there was a lot of visual comedy. I loved Buster Keaton, and I loved slapstick. I loved the Marx Brothers, all of whom were undergoing a bit of a revival then. And I found out quite by accident, a classmate, who was a real countercultural type figure (as we said back then), he said, "I'm leaving school. I'm gonna be a clown. Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey has a clown school, and I'm applying." I said, "Let me see that application." To hasten the story, uncharacteristically, I applied to the clown college, which was then in its second year, and I got in. Statistically, it was harder that year to get into the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey College of Clowns than it was to get into the Yale University Law School, which really makes sense in a lot of ways, if you've hired a lawyer recently. But I got in and I got Kenyon to let me go, which was really hard to do. It required a vote of the full faculty. It was a near thing. And then I got my parents to let me go, which was relatively easy. Again, my mother enters into the picture, 'cause both my parents were very much into the performing arts; had been performing artists themselves. My Dad had helped to work his way through medical school at St. Louis University, by singing in the St. Louis Municipal Opera, in the Muni Opera. He sang in operettas like, Robin Hood, The Student Prince and The Desert Song, and also some small comprimario roles. My Mom was a very good amateur pianist. She had been a dancer and a radio actress, all amateur stuff in Dayton, so when I came up with this idea of going to clown school for six weeks in the middle of my senior year, they took it very seriously. And my Dad, who was a wonderful man. He was a physician, but was also a sexist said to my mom, "Charlotte, I make all the decisions, you make this one." Mom said, "Okay, I want to talk to his professors. I wanna talk to his brothers." The provost of Kenyon College (was) a distinguished British Thomas Mann and Goethe scholar, named Bruce Haywood...She said to him, "Well, Dr. Haywood," - this will tell you how smart my Mom was - "Let me ask you a question. If it was your boy, what would you do?" And the famous quotation (that he said) is, "The liberal arts curriculum is sacred and inviolate, and you shouldn't leave campus for any reason. And I wouldn't send my son for that reason." And then my mother said, "Well, if Murray was your son, what would you do?" He said, "I'd send him in a minute." And so that's what happened. And I went to the Ringling Clown School in Venice, Florida, which was then the winter quarters of the circus, and spent five weeks and then said, "I gotta go home for Thanksgiving. I gotta get back to school." And they said, "Yeah, we've never had a college person here before, so yeah, but keep in touch. And when you graduate in June, if there's a place for you, we'd like to have you." And so I left not thinking I would really join the circus, but I got back home and I got back to Kenyon and not just my classmates and my friends - that was predictable enough, but my family and my professors were saying, "Do this. If you can beat the draft..." - At that time, the war in Vietnam was on. And I managed to get a high lottery number and a physical deferment, which is a whole other story, but I didn't have to go into the army. And they said, "You get paid for going around the country and making people laugh. Do it." And I did. And it was the best training I could have possibly gotten.

Marc A. Scorca: And you did that for three years?

Murray Horwitz: Yeah. Technically two and a half, because I joined out, as they say in the circus, in the middle of my first season, 1970; so three seasons, '70, '71, '72.

Marc A. Scorca: Unbelievable. It's an incredible story Murray, and I'm sure we could talk for hours about the places you were, the things you saw; what an experience. But I wanted to probe some of the other incredible aspects of your vivid, varied career. So Ain't Misbehavin'. You are a co-creator, award-winning artist behind Ain't Misbehavin'. How did that come to be?

Murray Horwitz: Comedy was something that I always loved, and started doing professionally at the age of 20. But I'd always, always loved jazz and one of the great things. And we did this. Lisa, my wife is a mezzo-soprano, but Lisa and I did this with our own kids. A lot of times parents make the mistake of playing what they want their kids to love. You know: the movies, dragging them off to the opera and forcing them...the theater and the music that they play in the house. "You've gotta listen to these Beethoven symphonies, because they're the best things that were ever written." Kids come to things, we all come to these things on our own terms. As you know, very often people don't come to classical music, and now to jazz music, until later in life - when they're in their forties or something like that. But I was lucky in that my parents played everything. They took us to jazz concerts. When I was about nine or ten, I saw Louis Armstrong at the Southwest Ohio Jazz Festival and Dave Brubeck. They took us to the Dayton Philharmonic, took us to the opera at the zoo, took us to all kinds of theater, including touring Broadway shows in Cincinnati at the Shubert Theater, and always had the latest Broadway show LP's in the house. My Dad had a friend who owned a record store in New York, and he would send us five or six of these things every year. The latest on Broadway. That's how I know about the show, Jamaica. I played the grooves out of that record. And I used to go to the Dayton Public Library. Libraries have a lot to do with my career because I was a terrible reader. I'm still a terrible reader, but I guess I was an aural learner, and I used to take out documentary records and historical records. When you're 10 years old in Dayton, you could take records out and I would take these records home and I'd play 'em. And in the documentary bin or something, was the Library of Congress Alan Lomax's interviews with Jelly Roll Morton, which are some of the foundational documents of jazz history. And I had all of those records, 10 volumes or something in my house at one time or another. My brothers, who were listening, not only to rock and roll at that time, in the late '50's, early '60's, but also to progressive jazz: Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet. They'd make fun of me. "Why do you listen to this Dixieland?" "If you don't hear it, I mean, sorry, but this is amazing." And then I started listening to jazz in almost a kind of chronological fashion. I was really kind of self-taught in jazz and got a lot of jazz reference books and listened to everything I could and learned what I could. And there was a fellow who was a patient of my Dad's, an African American guy named Cecil Talbot and he helped guide my listening when I was 14, 15. And he mentioned Fats Waller one day. And I said, "Who?" And he said, "You don't know about...You have to listen to Fats Waller." And I filed it away somewhere, and then browsing through the records at the Dayton Public Library, when I was about 18; it was about my sophomore year in college. And, there was a reissue by RCA called Valentine Stomp. It was produced by Mike Lipskin and it was a very good assortment of Fats Waller recordings. And that was it. I took it home, put it on the turntable, and it was the music I'd been waiting for my whole life. And I remember yelling downstairs to my Mom and saying, "Come up here right away." My Mom climbs the steps to our second floor bedroom that I shared with my brothers. And I play this Fats Waller stride piano solo of Love Me, or Leave Me. And I said, "It's two guys playing the piano. Is this like really one person?" ('Cause my Mom was a pianist as I mentioned.) And she said, "Yeah, it's Fats Waller." And I said, "You knew about this and you kept it hidden from me all these years?" I was mad at my Mom. So really beginning right then, I dreamed of somehow bringing the music of Fats Waller to a wider audience and the comedy of Fats Waller, because he's where those two arts meet. He's the funniest guy that ever played jazz music and the best jazz musician who ever tried to make people laugh. I couldn't believe he'd been dead for 25 years, and I couldn't believe that everybody didn't know who this guy was. He'd been forgotten. And so, I thought about it, and sort of kept it in the back of my mind. I bought every Fats Waller record I could find. There weren't many in print. After I left the circus, and I went to Europe for the first time, I came back hauling these 33 RPM records back, 'cause you could get 'em in Europe, but you couldn't get 'em in the US. There were a couple monographs that had been printed about Fats. I moved to New York at the end of my circus time in 1973, and I figured I was gonna be a performer of some sort; I was gonna be an actor. I went on auditions. I did some radio work and because I loved comedy so much and because I'm a Jewish fellow and because I loved Yiddish. I grew up in one of the few Jewish households in the United States where Yiddish wasn't used exclusively to keep secrets from the children. And so my brothers and I ended knowing some Yiddish and I fell in love with the stories of Sholem Aleichem. Another thing that I discovered in the Dayton Public Library because Howard Da Silva, the great actor and director had done a recording of Sholem Aleichem stories in English. So I kind of put together this one-man show of Sholem Aleichem stories. I did it in Philadelphia. It was a success, 'cause Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love and not perceptive critics, I guess. And there was a producer whose attention was turned to my show. His name was Lee Guber. He ran the music fairs, the Westbury Music Fair and all these sort of venues around the east. And he said, "You need a director," which I desperately did. And he put me together with a fellow who had been having some success at the Philadelphia Drama Guild named Richard Maltby Jr. And so Richard and I collaborated and Lee Guber bailed on the production. But Richard gathered me up and said, "I've been working with this group of people from Yale. They've started a little thing called the Manhattan Theater Club. I want you to meet Lynne Meadow. She runs the place and maybe we can do it in their Cabaret. They do cabaret.” So, Lynne said, "We don't do one-man shows" and Richard said, "Just meet with this kid." Because I was 25. And we met and she said, "You really wanna do this? Richard" He says, "Yeah, it's fun." "Okay, we'll do it." And so in the Cabaret of the Manhattan Theater Club, we did an evening of Sholem Aleichem. After we went into rehearsal, I had mentioned to Richard, 'cause nobody (who) knew me for more than five minutes then, didn't hear the word Fats Waller come outta my mouth. And he said, "I don't like jazz," and I didn't realize that Richard was really a musical theater guy. He was a lyricist, a protégé of Steve Sondheim, and so we did an evening of Sholem Aleichem in winter of '76 on East 73rd Street. And then I did it again in Philadelphia, the same theater. And later that year, Richard had put together an evening of the songs that he had written with the composer David Shire. And it became known as Starting Here, Starting Now. But when I saw that in the Manhattan Theater Club, it was at the time called An Evening of Theater Songs by Maltby and Shire. I kind of grabbed him and said, "Richard: Fats Waller." He said, "Well, maybe you should play me some stuff." So I put together a little tape for him like a cassette, and with almost no comedy. I finally put Your Feet's Too Big on it, but mostly it was piano solos and instrumentals. And Richard being Richard said, "Listen to his right hand. I know he's known for his left hand, but listen, the wit and the jokes that he's making. If we could bring that to the people, we'd have something worth doing." And that's one of the secrets of Ain't Misbehavin', which is very elegant. Fats was very elegant and it's an elegant show. And sometimes people make the mistake of making it a kind of down and dirty show. What makes the dirty stuff and the raunchy stuff great, is that it's handled very delicately in Fats Waller's comedy and music. So we looked into doing the story of Fats's life (but) that didn't interest us too much. As Richard said, "Fats's life didn't have a second act.” He died at 39. He just kind of went (noise of ascending and crashing). And we looked into reviving an old Fats Waller musical, Early to Bed. And that really didn't do it. So Richard said, "What would you think of just an evening of songs,” 'cause that's what they did at the Manhattan Theater Club Cabaret back then. They did songs by Jake Holmes. They did songs by Noel Coward. They did songs by Richard and David. And I said, "My suspicion is it'll be okay. I'm just worried that there won't be enough musical variety in it." Well, little did I know. When I started really doing the research...went down to the Library of Congress and got stacks of sheet music. When I went to the music publishers who had nothing, and they gave me letters, allowing me to Xerox stuff at the Library of Congress. He was even a better composer than I thought he was. I mean, he was really something: a trained musician, loved the classics. If he had not been an African American, he might well have been a concert organist or pianist. He played that much piano; he was great. And he was once asked to name the three greatest figures in history. This was in the '30's. He said (in order), "Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Johann Sebastian Bach." Fats knew a thing or two about harmony. And so that's what happened. Richard was directing a Peter Nichols play called Chez Nous at Manhattan Theater Club and something happened and it didn't go well, and he had to give it up, and Lynne (who's a great producer) did not kick him out of her theater. She said, "Why don't you call Murray and do that show he wanted to do?” Because we need something in the Cabaret in February. And we went into the same room that we had done Sholem Aleichem in; that he'd done Starting Here, Starting Now in. As he's fond of telling people: we went into pre-production the first week in December of 1977; we went into rehearsal the first week of January, 1978; we opened the first week in February; we closed the first week in March; we went into rehearsal for Broadway the first week in April; we opened the first week in May and we won the Tony the first week in June. And so we thought, "Huh, that's how it's done, right?" No, we figured it'll just be a few months till the next show. It turned out to be years. Back in the day, that's how they did musicals, but we were very, very lucky.

Marc A. Scorca: How remarkable. Okay. So fast forward a little bit: National Public Radio. Wait, Wait...Don't tell me.

Murray Horwitz: Well, in a way it's out of order, and I'm happy to go out of order, because what brought Lisa and me and our three children to Washington DC from New York was, well, necessity. I was probably making something like $75,000 a year, which in the late '80's put me in maybe the 97th percentile of playwrights and lyricists in the United States, but it wasn't enough to support a family of five in Manhattan. And so I got the job as the assistant director of Opera Musical Theater...

Marc A. Scorca: Okay. So let's put it in order then. Because in my questions is: who brought you to the NEA? And what's that path? I mean, listen to who you were, what you've been doing, and here you are the assistant director of the Opera Music Theater Program.

Murray Horwitz: Well, the other person, along with Lynne Meadow who ran MTC (Manhattan Theater Club) was Barry Grove. He was the managing director. And I can't remember how this happened, but I was looking for a job. I mean, I was a freelance. I was directing soap operas on TV. I wrote another show, Harlem Nocturne at La Mama with André De Shields that also went to Broadway, but didn't have quite the same success as Ain't Misbehavin'; It ran for six weeks. But we'd had these three kids, and they're great. They've all worked out wonderfully well, but I needed more income. I wondered about arts administration, which I didn't really know anything about. And I met with Barry Grove. He was incredibly encouraging. He said, "You can do this. You have to learn a little bit about accounting. You gotta learn how to make a budget. You gotta learn that.” And this is why I tell young people, when they ask: get a broad education, because anything you want to go in into, you can learn the technique. You can learn double entry, bookkeeping; you can learn how to budget; you can learn how to hire and fire people; you can learn about personnel management. As the Zen master says, "That's nothing but a little practice." Nobody can tell you the difference between a great opera and an okay opera. You just gotta know that; you've gotta learn taste. You've gotta learn the difference between a really wonderful performance and a not so wonderful performance. And Barry was right. And so I started looking into it, and meeting some people that he mentioned to me, and I ran into my partner, Richard Maltby Jr. in the theater one night. And he introduced me to, (and Richard had gotten a divorce in the meantime), and he says, "Oh, I want you to meet my fiance, Janet Brenner." And I went, "You're getting married again?" And so we met, and we really hit it off. And there was a reception at the Dramatist's Guild in early 1987. And I think John Guare was getting honored for something or other. And there was Janet, and she said, "Well, we're gonna tie the knot. I'm quitting my job, and I'm gonna move to New York," and she, at the time was assistant director of Opera and Musical Theater. And I said, "Your job." She said, "Would you do that? Would you consider?" I said "Yes." She said, "You'd be fabulous. Let me talk to my boss." And her boss was Patrick Smith, who is - in Judaism, we'd say he's one of the 18 saints walking the earth. He's one of the most remarkable people I've ever met in my life. A capacious intellect, a generous soul, a wonderful man. And I'll tell you the story of my hire. I was getting desperate and they were gonna create a job for me in Cincinnati, at one of the big television stations there, to be kind of an arts critic. They saw a Jewish guy with a moustache, and they were thinking, Gene Chalet, Joel Siegel; yeah, we'll have our own. We'll have Murray Horwitz, and I was about to take that. And then something got funny with the money and there was a hesitation. And in the meantime, I had applied for the job at the NEA, and Patrick called. I was in rehearsal. I was doing a show. We were doing a musical based on a Sholem Aleichem story at the Jewish Rep called Half a World Away. And I'd written the book and Raph Crystal and Richard Engquist had written the score. And I get this call in the middle of rehearsal. Patrick Smith wants to take you to lunch at the Century Club. So I went up to the Century Club and Lisa and I were almost literally packed, ready to go to Cincinnati, and Patrick said, "Well, my friend, it's you." And I said, "Really?" And I said, "Unpack the bags for Cincinnati, we're going to Washington," which turned out to be exactly the right move because both Lisa and I could kind of do what we did. She didn't have a big career, never made a living at singing, but she sang with the American Symphony at Carnegie Hall. What was the guy's name that did Eastern Opera Theater? And she did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan with the Manhattan Savoyards. But she could do some singing down here, and she ended up doing a lot of cantorial work. I was still on the east coast. I was still kind of in the mix to the extent that I wanted to be, or was energetic enough to be. I told people I'm not gonna write any more plays. That's my fault. And I did. I did end up writing plays and lyrics. And when I said the story of my hire is funny, we were in one of the lounges at the Century Club, and we're having a glass of wine. And he said, "Okay, it's time to go up to the dining room for lunch." And as we're climbing the stairs, he said, "You know, you weren't the best qualified person for the position. And that's why I picked you." And I didn't know what to say. So I didn't say anything. And after I'd been in the job in Washington for a few months...Patrick used to come in a little bit after me, and I would immediately go right into his office and we'd just talk for a half hour, and that's where I really learned. I tell young people, "If you really want to be mentored, you have to take the initiative. You gotta go in and be the mentee. It's up to the mentee." 'Cause most people are very happy to mentor you. They just don't have the time, unless you take the time. And I learned so much at Patrick's feet really. And one day I asked him, "Remember going up the stairs and saying I wasn't the most qualified; that's why I picked you." And he started to laugh. He said, "You see why." I said, "Why?" He says, "You'll see these people come in”, but he said, "You know, so and so who's been the assistant development director of the Oop Bab Shadi Opera Company, or they've been at the such and such theater in East Overshoe,” And he said, "It's all by the numbers. It's all, you know: they're arts (administrators), but they don't know the art form." He said, "You knew what it takes to put on a show. You were an artist.” He said, "I wanted you." And it reinforces my point. You can learn all that management stuff.

Marc A. Scorca: So there you were at the Opera Music Theater program. You got there in 1987. It had been started in the very late '70's. Ed Korn, Jim Ireland...

Murray Horwitz: who was my wife's theory teacher at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

Marc A. Scorca: Seriously? Oh my God.

Murray Horwitz: The first time I met Jim Ireland, he said, "Oh Lisa Miller. I remember she used to wear these velvet hot pants. Oh sure. I know her." He was great. I loved Jim.

Marc A. Scorca: Jim was just incredible. What was the atmosphere around this American opera thing, back in 1987?

Murray Horwitz: Well, it's a great question. And there is now a magazine called Vanity Fair, but back in the 1920's and '30's, there was a magazine called Vanity Fair, published by Frank Crowninshield. And it was the most sophisticated thing you could (have). And they did a lot of humor, and there was a famous article where they asked celebrities to write their own epitaphs. And that's where W. C. Fields said "I would rather be living in Philadelphia." And George Gershwin was asked to write his own epitaph. And it says "Here lies the body of George Gershwin, American composer. Composer? American?" And that's still pretty much obtained. It was like: there's European art music, and that's really classic. Americans do stuff, but really, you know, it's not. And the same was true of American opera, and this really is a lesson in leadership: when you get the opportunity to do something, and maybe even have a little bit of power, it's really important to seize on the idea, and you can have too many of 'em. You can't have like 15 things you want to get done. You gotta have one or two things that you really are gonna concentrate on and make sure that's what you're gonna carry forward. And in Patrick Smith's case, it was American opera; he wanted American opera. He knew that American singers were probably the best trained in the world at that point. They went to Europe to make a living, most of them. He knew that there were great American stage directors, great American conductors. And yet the composers and librettists were pretty much discounted: that was the atmosphere. There were still...they would've called themselves in intendants. There were still general directors of regional opera companies, even little ones, who were European or pseudo-European. And they were very pretentious. And the old, what Patrick used to call, 'stand and sing', with the sets flapping in the breeze. There were all kinds of clichés that opera people used back then; progressive ones I should say of canary fanciers would come to see these singing contests. And "Did he hit the high G at the top of Di quella pira?" That's not a Gesamtkunstwerk. That's not what opera's about. That's not what's compelling about the art form. And I was happy to be Patrick's lieutenant. I was learning so much. Patrick really went in with the idea that "Darn it. We're gonna make sure that there are not just more American operas, produced by American companies, but more good ones." Because bad art doesn't help anybody. And by gosh, he did it. He did it by jawboning people. He found the general directors who were willing to listen, and who saw the sense behind it. I used to think all the time, cause I'm thinking with my musical theater head and I was like, "If you get a kind of appealing enough opera, and a sexy enough opera, you're gonna sell tickets; you're gonna sell more tickets, than you're going to for L'Amico Fritz, or something, and it's gonna be a better show, and I'm not sure...this is really off the top of my head - and there are better people than I more qualified to answer this part of the question. But I think one of the big things that happened was Nixon in China.

Marc A. Scorca: 1987.

Murray Horwitz: And it was right when I was at the Endowment and for whatever you think of that opera, it was a good show, and it had a lot to recommend it, and it was topical and it got a lot of press and guess what? It sold out; it sold out the Kennedy Center. It sold out Houston Grand Opera. I think it was a big success in Holland. It was a triple commission. It was those three companies, as I recall.

Marc A. Scorca: It was, and it was a huge success. And if one has to put a finger on a timeline when the sea really changed, when the tide started to come in, it was at Nixon in China. And what I so admire about the NEA at that time, and the time that you were there, was that there was an Opera Music Theater Program that encouraged the obliteration of boundaries between what people knew as opera or musical theater, and it allowed that there is a spectrum of creative expression in this realm of singing theater - number one. And number two was the New American Works Program of the Opera Music Theater Program, which allowed grantmaking and applications in a fashion that almost was like a roadmap for those who did not know how to produce new work: here's money for workshops; here's money for the next step; here's money, finally, for the production. And it was a grant program that was a tutorial within this overarching Opera Music Theater endeavor. And I just think it was so incredibly well crafted, and it had great impact.

Murray Horwitz: It did. And at the time - I think you'd have to ask Patrick whom I certainly hope you're interviewing - I think he and I both thought we were making incremental progress. In retrospect, I think you may be right. I think we were part of a larger (?picture) because I guess we had funded Nixon in China. It was before my time, but Nixon in China would've happened anyway. It took David Gockley and the other people who saw what John Adams was and what he could bring to the art form. So we were part of it, and in retrospect, we probably made more progress than we thought we had, but you made me think of two things. And one of 'em is, when you talk about that spectrum...there had been a report, and it had been authored by Rob Marks, who became the director of theater. The NEA: you asked about the atmosphere. The NEA at the time was a really kind of magical place. Frank Hodsoll was the chair. Frank and I became very close and very good friends much later. At the time, all the program directors and the assistant program directors thought he had a management problem, and he's trying to put numbers and make some formula funding thing. This is not gonna work. But he had assembled with Hugh Southern as his deputy, an extraordinary cast of characters. Sali Ann Kriegsman and Andrea Snyder, who went on to run Dance USA, were in the dance program. Adele Chatfield-Taylor, and my dear friend, Wayne. He was her deputy in design arts. He had Patrick and me in opera. You had Rob in theater and Jessica Andrews was his deputy. If I can muster any humility after that touting, it was an Allstar team. It really was. And two things occurred to me. The first is that Rob had authored this report. And he, as I recall, identified three main activities or three main fields in what we kept calling 'the lyric stage'. You know, we had to write these reports and Patrick had no patience for bureaucracy. People will see him, I hope, as part of this series. But he was described by Steve Goodwin who ran the literature program as 'perpetually indignant', and another person who needs to be mentioned in all this is A.B. Spellman, who ran what was called Expansion Arts, which had a good deal to do with music theater and lyric stage works. So when I write these reports, I'd use 'music theater' and 'lyric stage' because we tried to show that it was a range of work. And I think the three areas that Rob identified were, opera, musical theater - what we would consider traditional musical theater, like not just Rogers and Hammerstein, but it also included Ain't Misbehavin', and non-Broadway stuff. It included Chorus Line. It included a lot of the stuff that was happening off and off, off-Broadway in those days. And to a certain extent in regional theater. And then the third thing was what he called 'Experimental Music Theater'. And this included works by Julie Taymor; all the work of the Music Theater Group, and so those were the three areas of activity. And Rob, not only for authoring that report, but also because he knew far more about opera and musical theater than I knew.

Marc A. Scorca: And Rob still does.

Murray Horwitz: He's amazing. And he's still a very close friend. And Rob, as the director of theater...thinking back on it, he could have put the kibosh on a lot of the stuff we did.

Murray Horwitz: Peter Pennekamp was another person who was crucial, because he ran what was called InterArts, which was a lot of avant-garde stuff, as well as presenting the presenters who presented performing arts around the country. And he was more than willing and eager to support experimental works, including experimental music theater. And so these guys, if they had wanted to, could have helped trim our sails. "No. You can't do experimental music theater. That's in InterArts," right or Rob could have said, "Musical theater, Rogers and Hammerstein, that's in the theater (department); that's public theater, New York Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Theater Club." And they didn't. They encouraged everything. And that speaks to their character and professionalism; speaks Patrick's diplomacy. And Patrick is such a scholar and so smart and has such intellectual integrity that they didn't dare oppose him,. And they didn't want to. They loved him.

Marc A. Scorca: When you describe it, it was just incredible. And at the time of course, the National Council in the Arts, the oversight body for the agency, was made up of some of the most thoughtful, articulate, prestigious people in the performing arts and the visual arts as well. A remarkable moment in time for great thought and leadership in the sector. Really incredible moment. As you think to those days, some of the personalities, as we reach back some. You dealt with Ardis Krainik, who was the first board chair I worked for, and from whom I learned so much, or Plato Karayanis; of course, Martin Feinstein there in Washington. You had a real cast of characters.

Murray Horwitz: And that was the second idea that I had. It didn't occur to me until just now, but in a way, by making me his assistant director, I think Patrick had made a statement. Before me, there had been all these opera folks. And here I was. I'd won a Tony award for best musical. I was this Broadway guy; a theater guy and a musical theater guy. I knew the art form of opera, thanks to my wife. But when I went in there, I could not have named a single general director of an opera company in the United States, maybe even including The Met, because that was a kind of interregnum time at The Met. Patrick paved the way. But Ardis could not have been nicer. She did not suffer fools gladly, as you know.

Marc A. Scorca: I know,

Murray Horwitz: But she always treated me with respect and courtesy and we really ended up getting along famously when I went from the NEA to NPR, and the opera things that we did there. And we did some of the operas at the Chicago Lyric. I ended up having conversations with Ardis that I never thought I would have. I've heard words come out of her mouth that I didn't know she knew, and same thing was true with Plato who was great. There were some who were a little bit more hidebound. The people I didn't get along with so well were the folks I mentioned: these old kind of 'European opera is one thing' and everything. And I even encountered some antisemitism, which by the 1950's should have been gone from opera, given the things that Maestro Bing had done at The Met, but no, there was some of that, even. My wife, Lisa and I had been asked back to... I was the MC and she sang at a gala to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Opera, in our hometown. And the guy who ran it was David DiChiera, who also ran Michigan Opera Theater. So I knew David and David was an ally.

Marc A. Scorca: And David, who really pushed through the whole idea that OPERA America would become a granting organization.

Murray Horwitz: Yes. And was chairman at a certain point, right?

Marc A. Scorca: He was.

Murray Horwitz: I think he was chairman of the board when I was really thinking about going for Patrick's job. Patrick resigned in 1989.

Marc A. Scorca: At that time, David Gockley was board chair.

Murray Horwitz: And David and I got along, 'cause David was a big champion of new work as you know. And Jim Ireland and I hit it off 'cause he'd been Lisa's teacher, and he was a great guy.

Marc A. Scorca: That connection is so funny. Murray, as we come to the top of our hour, I wanted to ask you whether all that you see now in American opera pleases you? Dismays you? Is it enough quantity? Is it enough quality? How do you take in what you birthed?

Murray Horwitz: Thank you. You're too kind. I might have been a nurse helping the anesthesiologist...

Marc A. Scorca: You were in the delivery room.

Murray Horwitz: I might have been in the delivery room. I don't see enough of it, so I can't really say. But I think the quality has improved, but it may have plateaued. People come to the theater and people come to the opera house for different reasons, and you can't be responsible in a certain way. I learned that with Ain't Misbehavin'. I remember Ain't Misbehavin', which features some 30 songs associated with or written by Fats Waller...I used to love to mix with the crowd at intermission and hear what they were saying, and I followed a somewhat older couple out. They were real Broadway theater goers. They were probably from Jersey. The bridge and tunnel crowd, as we called them. And I was following them out onto 48th street, and the wife turned to the husband (and he was afraid to say that he had liked the show). And he said, "Well then, it was okay. Right?" And the wife said, "Yes. It was good. I never knew Fats Domino had written all those songs." And it was like - what do we have to do to reach an audience? And so, there are those people, who still go to the opera because they wanna just wait all night to hear that woman belt out 'Vissi d'arte', and they don't care about anything else. They want to hear the tenor hit that high G. There are others who go because they're real opera-o-files and they know what this or that singer did in Hamburg last month and how they're gonna hear her at The Met. There's still the people there for the stand and sing, the canary fanciers. There are also people who just love Puccini and they think Puccini is the greatest thing of all time, and they won't go to see (anything else). As somebody reported, back when I was at the endowment; it might have been Bruce Crawford. They were leaving a Met board meeting, and one of the board members pulled him aside and said, "Why can't we do Madam Butterfly every season?" And there's still that, but in general, I would say singers can't get away with being lousy actors anymore; they have to bring something to the table and people are much more open to new work, and I think the new work has informed the old work so that it's a much more vibrant art form than it was. To that extent, I think we've succeeded and I'm still waiting for a lot of revivals of The Great Gatsby. And that was one of the big things that really helped. And this is a very simple way of saying: it was not all that difficult when Patrick and I were at the Endowment to get a first production of a new opera. There were certain companies you knew would do that. It was impossible to get the second production. Everybody wanted the premiere. That's not so true now. I think it's a little easier if an opera comes out, especially if it makes a little bit of a splash, other companies are willing to take it up. I don't know how many companies have done John Corigliano's operas.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. In our observation, there may be a kind of an immediate circuit for that successful new work, but then it will go to sleep. And we're trying to endow a program where we provide money to companies that are really picking something up after it has been neglected for a while, in relation to its intrinsic merit. And, Great Gatsby - I was at the premiere. I'd love to hear it again. How can you judge a piece in one hearing at its premiere? And this is the 100th anniversary of the novel. It would be great to hear the opera again and to celebrate along with the novel.

Murray Horwitz: I didn't get to go, but there was (before the pandemic, I guess in 2018 or '19), there was a production in Dresden and I saw the production stills and I was like, "I wish we'd had this production. This is great." And John Harbison, the composer, had said that it was a terrific production. And also John's done some reduced orchestrations. The original orchestration was for 112 pieces. One of the greatest moments in my life was being in the orchestra rehearsal room at The Met with James Levine at the podium and these 112 instruments playing this opera. What a sound; it was great.

Marc A. Scorca: I regret that my life has been so busy for the past 35 years. I regret that we now live in different cities. There are few people I respect, as much as I respect you.

Murray Horwitz: Thank you. And let it be said on the record that you are one of those people. I hope somebody's interviewing you because you are one of those who has transformed and continues the field of opera in the United States, because OPERA America, before you got there was...(unfinished sentence). I once said to somebody, "I wonder if OPERA America is like Major League Baseball or the National Football League, in that the commissioner is basically a guy who's working for a lot of dumb people and doing whatever they tell him to say, but you've really transformed (it).”