Remembering Barry Levitt, 1947-2017

When someone as beloved as Barry Levitt passes on, those who mourn are especially affected. When that transition to the larger life is completely unexpected, the shock and sorrow are magnified immeasurably. So it was when on September 21, after suffering a massive heart attack not quite two days earlier, the man whom everyone called “The Maestro” was taken from us far too soon. The Maestro was only 70 years old; the thunderbolt of his death threw the music world into a state of disbelief. Reaction to the sad news spurred an instantaneous flood of tributes, memories, commentary and more, most notably on social media. The outpouring was – and continues to be – a testament to a man who was universally beloved. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who had a negative word to say about The Maestro. Barry Levitt was as kind, gentle, caring, affable, supportive and giving as can be. It seems just about everyone in the communities that he served – and they run the musical gamut – has a wonderful story or memory about him. The lives he touched over a four-decade career are many. Those individuals and the projects he worked on would fill volumes. He was a continuing, forceful, dynamic presence in the world of music, from cabaret and jazz, to concert hall, to the Broadway stage, film and beyond.

Barry Levitt and the late “Queen of Cabaret,” Julie Wilson.

Barry Levitt learned his craft at the Manhattan School of Music, going on to cut a wide swath as a pianist, music director, arranger, conductor, composer, producer and educator, working in almost every style of music possible. His dedication to music is legendary, his professionalism likewise. On Broadway, The Maestro served as music director and arranger for Catskills on Broadway, which he knew about firsthand. Levitt served the Borscht Belt well as a musical director and band leader for many of the major acts there, back in the day.  His other Broadway credit was Swinging on a Star, a revue featuring the music of Johnny Burke, which tried out at the Goodspeed Opera House and opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre on October 22, 1995. He was music director, pianist and arranger for the Off-Broadway productions Little Shop of Horrors, Taking My Turn, Back in the Big Time and A Match Made in Heaven. He wrote music for film and music-directed for an impressive list of celebrated performers such as Margaret Whiting, Rosemary Clooney, Julie Budd, Julie Wilson, Ben Vereen, Bernadette Peters, Eartha Kitt, Carol Woods, Faith Prince, Chuck Cooper, Marilyn Michaels, Billy Eckstine and many, many more.

Levitt was also a MAC Award recipient and producer of many MAC Award shows, as well as a past president of that cabaret organization. From 1998 through 2004 he was the Producing Artistic Director of the Lyrics and Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y. He was also the producer of Her Song, a musical “herstory” of great female songwriters, from 2006 to 2007 at Birdland; a composer; and producer of the annual Lauri Strauss Leukemia Foundation Gala at Carnegie Hall. The Maestro, together with producer Scott Barbarino, gave master classes, including the Jazz Vocal Brunches at the Iridium, from 2006 to 2009. These were followed by 100 performances with Terese Genecco and her Little Big Band at the Iridium, which garnered them MAC‘s 2012 Show of the Year Award.  Additionally, he produced, arranged and conducted CDs and conducted nationally, including the New York, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Indianapolis Pops Orchestras. Many more became familiar with Levitt as a member of the team with Dana Lorge & Richard Skipper, playing the keys for their open mic/variety show series at The Iguana.

When The Maestro collapsed suddenly on September 19 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, he’d just finished a rehearsal and sound check before what was to be the opening night of singer Dawn Derow‘s My Ship: Songs from 1941. (Her November 4 performance will go on as a benefit to help pay the medical costs now facing the Levitt family.)  

His last working minutes were caught live by videographer Michael Lee Stever. In that footage, Barry Levitt is seen smiling, beaming, and full of the grace and joy that marked his “menschness.” It’s a bittersweet moment in time – sorrowful in the knowledge of the loss, but also a fitting affirmation of who this giant of man was. Barry Levitt fell unconscious and never regained awareness. He died without pain, doing what he loved to do most, and in that he was blessed. For those of us who remain, even in our sorrow, we are endowed with the most wonderful memories of this special soul, and with the monumental, tangible legacy of his prodigious and important life’s work in music.

Our profound condolences go out to The Maestro’s beloved wife, Brenda Levitt, and to his daughter Dori and grandson, Thor.