Oscar Levant is remembered as an American concert pianist with a sharp wit and an air of melancholy. In addition to his unmistakable talent as a pianist, he was a composer, music conductor, author, game show panelist, talk show host, comedian, and actor. Transitioning through the mediums of radio, film, and television, he certainly impacted the entertainment industry.
His talents took him from Pittsburgh to Hollywood and, eventually, all over the world. During his time in Hollywood, he befriended George Gershwin. Levant wrote his fair share of popular songs, with the most notable being “Blame it on my Youth.” Following Gershwin’s passing, Levant performed many Gershwin pieces as a tribute to his late friend albeit almost to the point of contention; Levant felt that his own output was overshadowed by the expectation for him to perform Gershwin’s pieces. He also appeared in numerous MGM films, including The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and The Band Wagon (1953), to name a few.
Levant was a familiar face on television, regularly appearing on the quiz show Information Please. While his personality no doubt captivated audiences, it caused stress for network executives with Levant offering edgy remarks such as, “I know Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Behind the scenes, Levant was married twice and had three daughters. He also struggled with neuroses and hypochondria, in addition to an addiction to prescription drugs. He was committed to mental hospitals by his wife, June Gale, and gradually withdrew from the spotlight.
Good Night, Oscar by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright pays homage to the complicated life of Oscar Levant, focusing upon one shocking night of live television. Emmy Award-winning actor and producer Sean Hayes takes on the role of Levant, aptly portraying his mannerisms, delivery, witticisms, and–yes–astounding piano performance.
Chicago’s Goodman Theater was home to preview performances of Good Night, Oscar, delighting audiences from March 21, 2022, on through an extended run ending on April 24, 2002. Hayes is supported by Emily Bergl as June Levant, Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar, Peter Grosz as Bob Sarnoff, Ethan Slater as Max Weinbaum, Tramell Tillman as Alvin Finney, and John Zdrojeski as George Gershwin. The show is directed by Lisa Peterson.
While the performance draws from Levant’s appearance on The Jack Paar Show, audiences are also at the mercy of Levant’s own mind and demons. At times drifting in and out of the present, audiences learn more about Levant’s journey and challenges, depicting him as a tortured artist shielding himself from reality through wry, black comedy.
While the sets, costumes, and writing for this show are all to be lauded, the performances here were truly exceptional. Comedic and serious moments are well-balanced, and the Jack Paar segments capture the energy and excitement of being part of a shocked but amused studio audience. Both Oscar and June are portrayed in empathetic ways and the dynamics between Hayes and Bergl are perfect for the show. Zdrojeski’s Gershwin has a subtle haunting strength that seems to drive Levant to madness in his painful musings. Rappaport offers a charming Paar and Grosz a stern Sarnoff. Tillman’s character offers an intriguing presence in the story, acting as a sort of buffer between Oscar and June at times. Slater joins in offering fine comic relief.
However, it is Hayes’s performance that shines brightest of all. His physicality matches that of Levant’s as does his delivery and tone. His most dramatic moments are quite powerful, while his comedic timing is exactly on par. Hayes’s abbreviated performance of Rhapsody in Blue is an absolute showstopper.
As Levant once said: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity; I have erased this line.” Good Night, Oscar, takes audiences by the hand to dance over this line and back in direct homage to Levant. Good Night, Oscar, is a wonderful show and a fascinating look into the life of Levant. I look forward to the show’s continued success.