By Michael Kuchwara
New York (AP) -- Robert Wright, a composer and lyricist who collaborated with George Forrest on the scores for such Broadway musicals as "Kismet," "Song of Norway" and "Grand Hotel," has died at the age of 90.
Wright died Wednesday at his Miami home of natural causes, said his brother, Jack Wright, of Gloversville, N.Y.
For much of their careers, Wright and Forrest specialized in adapting someone else's music, usually a classical composer, and spinning it into something new.
They used their talent, for example, to take an obscure wedding dance by Edvard Grieg and turn it into "Strange Music," a smash from "Song of Norway" (1944). They later transformed the exotic themes of Russian composer Alexander Borodin into songs such as "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" for "Kismet" (1953), which won a Tony Award for best musical.
The songwriting team did much the same thing in Hollywood, working on dozens of films including "Maytime," "Sweethearts" and "I Married an Angel." Among their Hollywood hit tunes was "The Donkey Serenade," adapted from a piano piece by Rudolf Friml and sung by Allan Jones in the film "The Firefly" (1937).
"Writing original music is 10 or 20 times easier than the things for which we are best known," Wright said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1989. "The first thing you have to do as an adapter is learn everything a composer ever wrote. Then you have to assemble and assimilate the music. And finally, think the way he did."
The Wright-Forrest partnership lasted some 70 years, ending when Forrest died in 1999. It began in the late 1920s at Miami Senior High School where they wrote their first song.
Their last Broadway show was "Grand Hotel," based on the best-selling Vicki Baum novel, which later became a successful movie starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore. The musical, which opened in New York in 1989, had a turbulent production history.
Directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, the show was in trouble during its Boston tryout. Tune brought in composer Maury Yeston to write additional songs. "Grand Hotel" ran for more than 1,000 performances, and all three men received Tony nominations for the score.
Born Sept. 25, 1914 in Daytona Beach, Fla., Wright started his piano-playing career early.
"I had won an amateur contest playing the Rachmaninoff 'C Sharp Minor Prelude' when I was 9 and went into vaudeville," he said in the AP interview. "I found out very young that there was money in music, so I never touched the piano unless I was paid."
In the 1930s, the two men went to Hollywood and found work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They were signed to write original music and lyrics. But the team found little work until a disaster nearly derailed a film version of Sigmund Romberg's "Maytime," starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Irving Thalberg, the legendary producer, died with only half the film musical completed. A new director started over, and Wright and Forrest were assigned to come up with new musical material. Much of it was taken from music already in the public domain, pieces like Tchaikovsky's "Fifth Symphony" and pieces of operas. The movie was a big success, and Wright and Forrest stayed in Hollywood for seven years, participating in some 50 movies, often anonymously.
"We worked on anything they asked," Wright said in the AP interview. "You're slaves in Hollywood, very happy slaves, but they owned us body and soul. We always did our very best and worked as artistically as we possibly could."
Finally, they quit. Herbert Stothart, MGM's famous musical director and their mentor, told them: "They'll keep you forever. People will never know who you are."
Before they left they wrote a small musical revue called "Thank You, Columbus," that opened -- and closed -- in Los Angeles. But through it, they met producer Edwin Lester who vowed to put on their next show.
"Once you write anything for the stage and you put it in front of an audience and you hear them react, then the movies become very dreary and dull," Wright said.
Lester reappeared in their lives in 1944, with an idea for a stage musical based on the life of Edvard Grieg, using the composer's own melodies. The idea became "Song of Norway." It was a big success for Lester in California, and he brought it to New York where it ran for more than two years.
Lester also was responsible for "Kismet." The musical, a sort of Broadway meets the Arabian Nights, starred Alfred Drake. Besides "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," the songs included "This Is My Beloved" and "Rhymes Have I."
Among the other Wright and Forrest Broadway musicals were "Gypsy Lady" (1946), "Magdalena" (1948), "Kean" (1961), "Anya" (1965) and "Timbuktu!" (1978), an African reworking of "Kismet."
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