Book Writer, Lyricist, Opera Librettist
Latouche's family moved to Richmond, VA when he was four months old. His parents soon divorced, and he grew up there in genteel poverty living with his mother, Effie, a seamstress, and his younger brother, Louis. Latouche graduated from public school and, thanks to a scholarship he won in a literary contest, moved to New York City in 1932. He attended Riverdale Country School for a year, Columbia University for two years, then left school to concentrate on writing for the theatre, contributing music and/or lyrics to a number of musical revues on and off-Broadway, as well as writing nightclub material for a variety of performers.
His first great success came with the musical cantata Ballad for Americans, a 13-minute paean to American democracy for soloist and full orchestra and chorus (music by Earl Robinson.) Written to be the finale of the Federal Theatre Project's musical revue, Sing for Your Supper, it achieved national success when performed on the radio by Paul Robeson. It led to the opportunity to write lyrics for the hit Broadway musical, Cabin in the Sky (music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root), which starred Ethel Waters and was subsequently filmed by MGM under the direction of Vincente Minnelli, featuring Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Lena Horne. Latouche's second hit song, "Taking a Chance on Love," comes from Cabin.
Duke and Latouche followed the show with the songs for two short-lived star vehicles, Banjo Eyes (for Eddie Cantor) and The Lady Comes Across (for Jessie Matthews). World War II intervened in their collaboration; Latouche served in the Seabees.
He resumed his Broadway career in 1944, writing the lyrics for two unsuccessful operettas, Rhapsody (from the music of Fritz Kreisler, adapted by Robert Russell Bennett) and Polonaise (from the music of Frederic Chopin, adapted by Bronislaw Kaper.) Three critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful musicals for which Latouche did book and lyrics followed: Beggar's Holiday (1946? music by Duke Ellington), an interracial contemporary version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, starring Alfred Drake as Macheath, from which emerged the jazz standard, "Take Love Easy"; Ballet Ballads (1948? music by Jerome Moross), three one-act "dance cantatas"; and The Golden Apple (1954? music by Moross), which reset Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey in 1900 in the American Northwest and won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. It also gave Latouche his last big hit song, "Lazy Afternoon."
Next came The Vamp, in 1955, a vehicle for Carol Channing (music by James Mundy, co-book writer Sam Locke). A spoof of the early days of silent films and loosely based on the life and career of Theda Bara, it was a critical and commercial failure on Broadway, despite receiving largely positive reviews on its pre-Broadway tour.
In July of 1956, the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe opened to rave reviews. Perhaps Latouche's best-known work, Baby Doe came about due to a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation. But composer Douglas Moore and playwright/lyricist Paul Green, the original choice as librettist, ran into artistic differences, and Latouche was brought on board to replace Green. Though the two were unlikely cohorts--Moore a patrician family man, Latouche an openly gay man and a dedicated hedonist--their work ultimately bore the mark of a shared appreciation of the Tabor story, and, after considerable research and a "fact-finding" trip to Leadville, Colorado, a deep understanding of how the story might make for some especially rich musical theatre.
Baby Doe's world premiere took place in the opera house at Central City, Colorado (which opened in early March of 1878, reputedly with the REAL Baby Doe in the audience). It was subsequently presented in 1958 at the New York City Opera, making a star out of Beverly Sills, and is one of the few 20th-century American operas to enter the standard repertory.
Talented, gregarious, engaging, John Latouche made an impression on everyone he met. "He would find the quietest person at party and in no time that would be the liveliest part of the room," according to Moore's daughter, Mary.
Latouche died of a sudden heart attack at his Vermont home at the age of 41, having just completed revisions on The Ballad of Baby Doe and while at work on revisions to his lyrics for Candide (to Leonard Bernstein's music), produced posthumously on Broadway in December, 1956. Divorced from Connecticut heiress Theodora "Teddy" Griffis after a brief, early marriage, he was survived by his partner-in-life, poet Kenward Elmslie, who still occupies their Vermont home today.
Biography courtesy of Erik Haagensen