The woman who knew life really is a cabaret

Howard Samuels on the cabaret homage to his partner and muse Fran Landesman


'My words coming out of somebody else's mouth is just about the most erotic, sexy, pleasurable experience you could possibly imagine!" How could you not eat up a woman who says that?

Fran Landesman - beat poet, jazz lyricist and lifelong bohemian - came into my life in the autumn of 1982, and to this day has had the most enduring and profound influence on it. I still pinch myself to check this actually happened, and I cherish the memories of our times together until her passing in 2011.

If you believe in kismet, as I do, you will understand how I feel we were destined to meet and become soulmates. The more I got to know her the more I fell in love with her genius, her outrageous sense of humour, her zest for life, her words, her music, her mood swings and most of all her heart. Even now she brightens up my life just thinking of her and, best of all, the feeling was mutual. So how did this cranky, jazz-steeped beat generation Dorothy Parker come into the life of a nice Jewish boy I hear you ask.

In the summer of 1982, I had just returned to London after playing a Puerto Rican with a headband in a Scottish production of "West Side Story", a deeply unsatisfying experience!

I decided it was time to promote my own material and mounted a production at The King's Head Theatre, Islington. The show was an hour-long revue chronicling the life of Oscar Wilde through contemporary music.

One night, I arrived at the theatre to find an envelope addressed to me and inside there was a letter wrapped around a cassette. The letter was from someone called Fran Landesman. It said that she saw the show the other night and absolutely loved it and would I like to work with her. The cassette was full of her songs, mostly all to do with the movies, which we were to discover was a shared passion.

To my shame, I didn't know who she was. I asked around, these were PG days (pre-Google) and slowly but surely the identity of my admirer was revealed. So, as it turned out, Jack Kerouac played bongos outside her window and tried to date her. She turned a T.S. Eliot poem into a jazz classic sung by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand. Bette Davis memorised one of her poems and Tom Waits labelled her as "one of my heroes". I still feel the pain of my jaw dropping to the floor. She had approached little old me!

With some anticipation, I dialled her number. She answered, raved about my show, I raved about her songs and so our mutual love fest began. I loved the sound of her voice. Warm, Jewish New York with a slight husk, and she was funny, my God was she funny. We arranged to meet the following week. Her apartment, I soon found out, was where Fran held court. Her famous bed. The room was an Aladdin's cave full of memorabilia. Baubles, bangles, beads, books, song sheets and piles and piles of lyrics.

There was a half-finished portrait of a beautiful woman on the wall. This, Fran told me, was her mother. The reason it was half finished was that her father, consumed with jealousy, was convinced the artist was having an affair with his wife and threw him out of the house mid-session.

Oh yes, everything had a story and they were always side-splittingly funny. We sat on the bed and started to put the world to rights. Conversation was easy, we talked about "the biz" as she called it, she read me some of her lyrics, all brilliant and we out-quoted each other with movie dialogue.

We spoke about the songs on the cassette and decided to write a show around them. The show was called "Don't Cry Baby, It's Only a Movie" Penny Faith and I wrote the book and Fran and Jason McAuliffe wrote the songs. Fran was ecstatic! "A book musical" she enthused.

This was the beginning of our work together. As time passed, I had the good fortune to see her perform many times. Yes she'd had two massive hits - Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and The Ballad of the Sad Young Men - but the body of her remarkable work was still relatively unknown. I realised I had to bring this to a wider audience. This was my mission. In 1993, I put together Invade my Privacy, a musical celebration of the works of Fran Landesman. It was performed by Tina Jones, Michelle Fine, Jacqueline Dankworth, Lucy Dixon and myself, accompanied by a three-piece jazz band. It premiered at the King's Head, transferred to the Riverside Studios and was chosen for a gala performance at the Criterion Theatre to raise money for the Prince's Trust. It was a huge, beautiful, glorious hit! I received a poem from Fran:

"Howard honey, dear old mate, forgive this verse for being late

You've given me a splendid year I should (at least) buy you a beer

And raise a glass to toast your birth and wish you health and wealth and mirth

Instead I send this little rhyme to thank you for a lovely time

And though I know it sounds like corn I bless the day that you were born."

We continued to write, gig and laugh together until her passing in July 2011. It is still a burning desire to promote her genius and last July myself and original cast member Lucy Dixon re-visited Invade my Privacy. This time as a two-hander. This time as a cabaret. This time it's personal.

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