In 1958 Time magazine called composer, conductor, author, and teacher Lehman Engel “one of the nation’s busiest and most versatile men-about-music.” A Streetcar Named Desire, The Consul, Murder in the Cathedral, and Li’l Abner are a few of the many Broadway shows with which he was associated as a composer or conductor. His efforts earned him widespread recognition, including Tony Awards in 1950 (for conducting the Menotti opera The Consul) and 1953 (for conducting Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Wonderful Town).
Born to Jewish parents in Jackson, Engel played the piano by ear until age ten, when his parents were able to afford lessons for him. He wrote that his first piano teacher was an “aristocratic southern lady” whose lessons, like those of his subsequent teachers, he quickly outgrew. He completed his first composition, The Scotch Highlander, shortly after he began taking piano lessons, and musical composition for the theater became one of his primary interests. A Jackson movie house, the Majestic Theater, with its small orchestra accompanying silent movies, impressed the young boy greatly and provided some of his most memorable early experiences.
Although not an extremely talented pianist, Engel entered the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after graduating from high school. When he discovered that he had been eligible for a partial scholarship for piano lessons but was the only student not receiving funds, he became angry and immediately transferred to the Cincinnati College of Music. Two years later he turned down a faculty position there and moved to New York. With a graduate scholarship to the Julliard School, Engel took courses in composition from Rubin Goldmark and studied privately with Roger Sessions. Engel also made contacts and established his career, spending several months attempting to meet Martha Graham: when he finally did, she encouraged him to write compositions for her dance company and for other concert dancers.
Engel received his first Broadway credit for Within the Gates (1934). Music had already been written for the play, but Engel heard it, expressed his dislike to director Melvyn Douglas, and offered to write a new version by the next morning. The play closed after just 141 performances, but Engel’s music received praise.
The Federal Music Project, a subsidiary of the Works Progress Administration, organized a group of madrigal singers and hired Engel to serve as the group’s conductor from 1935 to 1939. He also composed music for the Federal Theatre Project and its subsidiary children’s theater before he began working with Orson Welles and John Houseman at their Mercury Theater. During World War II he joined the US Navy, conducted a military orchestra at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and later served as chief composer for the navy’s film division in Washington, D.C. His other pursuits included joining with Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and Virgil Thompson to found Arrow Music Press, which published the work of American composers; conducting more than sixty recordings for major record companies such as Columbia, Decca, and RCA Victor; composing four operas and music for radio, film, and television; writing books about musical theater; and teaching workshops in musical lyrics.
Known as the Poor Man’s Lenny Bernstein, Engel became one of the most respected and sought-after musicians on Broadway. He never returned to the South to live but visited Jackson to conduct premieres of two of his operas. Engel died of cancer in 1982.
- Josh Barbanel, New York Times (30 August 1982)
- Lehman Engel, This Bright Day: An Autobiography (1974)
- Lehman Engel, Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto (1972, 2006)
- Walter Rigdon, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia and Who’s Who of the American Theatre (1966)
- Nicolas Slonimsky, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1984)
- Time (8 December 1958)