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Musical America: Mitch Leigh Dies at 86

Musical America
via Associated Press

NEW YORK — Mitch Leigh, a successful advertising jingle writer with an exuberantly entrepreneurial side whose debut attempt at writing music for a Broadway show became the instant, celebrated hit Man of La Mancha and earned him a Tony Award, has died. He was 86.

Leigh died Sunday in New York of pneumonia and complications from a stroke. A memorial was held yesterday afternoon in Manhattan and all Broadway theater marquees will dim in his honor for one minute at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday.

"Mitch would have enjoyed every 60 seconds of that minute. He would have been honored. It's really, really wonderful news on a day of gloomy news here," his wife, artist Abby Leigh, said Monday.

Mitch Leigh followed up his early theatrical success by producing and directing for the Broadway stage, including a 1985 production of The King and I with Yul Brynner, in which he earned a best director Tony nomination.

He also produced The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm in 1999, supplied the music for Ain't Broadway Grand in 1993, produced Chu Chem, billed as the first Chinese-­Jewish musical in 1989, and backed a 1983 revival of Mame with Angela Lansbury. In later life, he turned to real estate and the creation of a huge environmentally clean residential and commercial project in New Jersey.

Born Irwin Michnick in the Brooklyn borough of New York in 1928, Leigh's mother was illiterate and his father was a Communist. He played the bassoon, was a childhood fan of Benny Goodman, and served in the Army in two roles — as a baseball player for the Army team and a drum major in the Army band.

While recuperating from a broken leg at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center-­-­he had slid into home badly-­-­he heard the work of composer Paul Hindemith and fell in love. He wrote a postcard to Hindemith pleading to study with him at Yale University. Hindemith advised him to first apply to Yale and send some music. Leigh did exactly that and earned bachelor's and master's degrees, studying under Hindemith.

Leigh worked for a time in Hollywood for MGM, and then became a studio musician. He soon created his own a radio and television commercial production house in 1957, called Music Makers, Inc., which employed a staff of composers, musicians, and orchestrators, turning out jingles for hundreds of commercials. He penned Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee, and his clients included American Airlines and Polaroid. He set one of his first jingles for Revlon to London Bridge Is Falling Down.

"That was Mitch — he just sort of fell into things," said his wife. "That what he was like his whole life. He could make friends with anyone and he did. He had a huge diversity of friends and he valued them. He just enjoyed life."

Leigh got into musical theater after supplying incidental music to Too True to be Good by George Bernard Shaw, which was directed by Albert Marre and stared Lillian Gish and Robert Preston. Marre soon brought him in for the musical version of Spanish author's Miguel de Cervantes' 1605 telling of Don Quixote.

Man of La Mancha with a book by Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion

(after poet W.H. Auden dropped out), won five Tony Awards, ran for over 2,000 performances, and was translated into a dozen languages. The show's most popular song, The Quest (popularly known as The Impossible Dream) hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1966 and has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Placido Domingo, and Cher.

A film version starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren was released in 1972. The musical has been revived four times on Broadway-­-­most recently in 2003 with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Brian Stokes Mitchell-­-­and has hundreds of productions a year throughout the world. The show played for 253 performances in London at the Piccadilly Theatre.

"Mitch was a unique man, one of those larger than life types. I learned a lot from him. He used to come to all of our orchestra rehearsals in each new city. He often conducted the overture on opening nights and the trumpet players would be nervous because they had never seen him conduct," said Cherie Rosen, who worked on the last two Broadway revivals of La Mancha and is the musical supervisor of the current national tour.

More recently, Leigh concentrated on his yearslong quest to build a massive planned green community of homes, shops and sports facilities "designed for really nice people of all ages who love sports and the arts" in Jackson Township, N.J. The Jackson Twenty-­One project takes its name from the exit number of its location off of Interstate 195. "If you're not a nice person," he said in a TV ad, "please don't call."

He is survived by his wife and their two children, David and Rebecca, and a son, Andy, from a previous marriage.

"He was just very unconventional and I knew it when I married him. I had no idea if it would be a happy marriage," his wife said. "But I thought, 'it's going to be an interesting one.' It was worth a shot because I'd never met anyone like him."