Friday, December 7, 2012

So Lucky to Have Had Dave Brubeck – and Susan Luckey

I lost two favorites this week. The first was Dave Brubeck, whose 1959 recording, Time Out, was one of the great jazz albums of all times. Brubeck’s polyrhythmic skills as a pianist and composer were unsurpassed, though ironically his signature tune was not his own composition. “Take Five,” written by Brubeck’s longtime sax player Paul Desmond, will always live on for me. Curiously, I associate it with a play I did at Hamilton High School. The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s take on the Salem witch trials, is powerfully dramatic. In rehearsal, we serious junior thespians would work ourselves up to a fever pitch. Then -- take five! In an instant, we were rambunctious teenagers again, cool and loose and free. The Brubeck Quartet’s recording, for me, captured exactly that wonderful release of tension.

The world mourns Dave Brubeck, who died of a heart attack just shy of his 92nd birthday. But I feel equally sad about the loss of Susan Luckey, who passed away at age 74, mostly forgotten by the public. No, I don’t mean Susan Lucci, soap opera star and perennial Emmy nominee, who remains very much alive. Susan Luckey was a dancer and actress who made a big impression on me when I was a dreamy youngster enamored of movie musicals. The pinnacle of her career was probably playing Zaneeta, Mayor Shinn’s giggly daughter, in the 1962 film version of The Music Man. A sweet young thing, Zaneeta was forever exclaiming “Ye gods!” when caught canoodling with Tommy Djilas, the immigrant kid from the other side of the tracks. Her father may have disapproved, but Zaneeta and Tommy danced so beautifully together that we in the audience knew their love was here to stay.

But Susan Luckey had already won me over back in 1956, thanks to her role in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Based on a Hungarian drama that was transplanted to a New England setting for Broadway and then Hollywood, Carousel is a most unlikely musical theatre piece. It begins (SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) with a romance between a local girl and a hard-living carnival roustabout. (In the movie they’re played by Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, though at one time Frank Sinatra coveted MacRae’s role.) They marry, she becomes pregnant, and then he’s killed in the course of a robbery gone wrong. That’s the end of the leading man -- except it isn’t, because we know he’s secretly watching over the little family he left behind. (This is starting to sound like Ghost, but so be it.)

Susan Luckey played daughter Louise, growing up fatherless and unhappy. At the center of the film’s second half is a long, dramatic seaside ballet in which we learn all we need to know about her sorrows and her dreams. That ballet, combined with the final stirring scene in which Louise -- reconciled at last to her father’s memory -- has joined her high school classmates to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” invariably moved me to tears.

I admit I’m a total sucker for dream ballets. And the musicals of the post-World War II years were full of them. I suspect that Gene Kelly loved them as much as I did, because he starred in some of the best. Like the “Gotta Dance” number (featuring the outrageously slinky Cyd Charisse) in Singin’ in the Rain. And, best of all, the finale of An American in Paris, in which the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec come to exuberant life. That finale made me cry too: it was just so gorgeous. As was Susan Luckey in Carousel. Rest in peace.