Remembering Glen Roven (1958-2018)

Glen Roven, who was a great friend and supporter of LARB, and an occasional writer for us, died unexpectedly on Wednesday, after a short illness. He is survived by his mother Ruth, loving sister Janice, and his nephews Myles and Zack, the lights of his life, whom he was helping to raise while they raised him.

Glen Roven was all things, and we were privileged to be his friends. He knew high culture, he knew pop culture. He knew everyone, and went everywhere, but he really wanted to just stay at home. He was a learned and brilliant composer of symphonic new music and opera and he took the same care with orchestras for award shows, telethons, Hollywood events, and musicales for friends’ birthdays. He loved the timeless, he loved ephemera. He was always boyish in his glee and energy, and nothing if not an old soul. He was delightful company and embraced people from every walk of life, but he avoided as many social encounters as he accepted. He won Emmys and other awards and worked with the biggest names in music, but his real love was setting some of the world’s greatest poetry to his own harmonically complex, fantastically atmospheric music. He was shy about his dearth of formal higher education, but he was in fact a surprisingly well-read man, with a wide range of literary interests, and a writer himself, producing criticism and commentary in Broadway, opera, and literary magazines. He never graduated from one, but he taught at some of the world’s greatest universities. He was, as a friend once said, a cultured, educated sophisticate disguised as a little Brooklyn boy with stains on his shirt. Or vice versa. He worked with everyone, from Ella Fitzgerald to Bono, but remained hungry for his next achievement. At the time of his death, having just turned 60 two weeks earlier, he was working with frequent collaborator Maria S. Schlatter on a musical written with and starring Dolly Parton, and he had just finished a new symphony, a new musical, and a new opera, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to music guy for television producers in Hollywood.

He started his musical theater career as a rehearsal pianist for Pippin when he was still in high school, and then became the youngest conductor in Broadway history, debuting at age 19 with Sugar Babies, an homage to the golden days of burlesque, at the Mark Hellinger Theater (now the Times Square Church); he stayed for the musical’s 1,208 performances. Even then he had one foot in the theater’s glorious past and one in its future. When he met the show’s star Mickey Rooney, he said he hoped his own youth did not unmoor the 60-year-old star. “Kid, when I was 16 I was the biggest box office star in the world,” said Rooney. “You’ll do fine.”

And he did. He became fast friends with Rooney’s co-star Ann Miller and after the show would hop in her limo to go to dinner with whichever of Miller’s friends had attended the show that night — Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, Hermes Pan, Katharine Hepburn, or the young newcomer starring two blocks north in Evita, Patti Lupone.

He went on to arrange and conduct for shows starring Lupone, Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews, Kathleen Battle, Michael Bolton, Bono, Ray Charles, Charlotte Church, Natalie Cole, Plácido Domingo, Melissa Etheridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Renee Flemming, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G., Gregory Hines, Bob Hope, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Quincey Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Patti La Belle, Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, Diana Ross, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, and Stevie Wonder, among many others.

Roven conducted two inaugural concerts each for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He arranged and conducted the last TV appearances of both Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. He conducted the Israel Philharmonic, the National Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Radio Luxembourg Orchestra.

His career as a record producer and composer of musicals, operas and other pieces was still to unfold. His musical Norman’s Ark played the Ford Theater in Los Angeles with a cast of 200, directed by Peter Schneider. His musical Heart’s Desire was written with Armistead Maupin, and played the Cleveland Playhouse and the Shaftesbury Theater in London. He wrote the scores for John Guare’s, Lydie Breeze and Gardenia, Christopher Isherwood’s A Meeting By the River, and Larry Gelbart’s Mastergate, and was a contributing composer to A…My Name is Alice. He also wrote classical music adored by children — including a violin concerto based on The Runaway Bunny, recorded by Sony and later his own label, Roven Records, and Goodnight MoonAn Aria for Singer and Orchestra, which was performed in New York at the three halls: Geffen, Carnegie, and Alice Tully.  His Poetic License featured over 100 poems by 100 performers. As a record producer he co-produced The Carnegie Hall Lullaby Project, which paired composers with lyrics penned by mothers and fathers in homeless shelters and correctional facilities. Artists who contributed to the project include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Diane Reeves, Fiona Apple, Roseanne Cash, and Natalie Merchant. He co-produced An AIDS Quilt Songbook: Sing for Hope, an all-star CD benefiting amfAR featuring Joyce DiDonato, Jamie Barton, Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani, Susanne Phillips, Yo-Yo Ma, Ansel Elgort, Sharon Stone, and more.

It is hard to stop — there was so much more in a frenetic life of nonstop composing, producing, and performing — but we didn’t really care about his resume; he did, and he was determined to make more and more art, more and better recordings, endless performances big and small. We loved those, too, but we really loved when we could just sit, and hear his stories, and share his enthusiasm for what he was doing, for what we were doing, his bright eyes alight. Sometimes he sat at our piano, playing a few chords in an elegant attempt to describe the harmonic structure of, say, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, the kind of thing he did as a guest at schools around the country. But he couldn’t sit long; soon he’d be off, to New York, Tel Aviv, London, or Los Angeles, to some new, even more fabulous event, in a flurry of activity, running, as if somehow, some day, he would land on shore having a sense of the journey fulfilled and find peace. We know he now has. We miss him.

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