Still putting on a happy face: Legendary Broadway composer Charles Strouse in S.F. for tribute

What did noted Broadway composer Charles Strouse think about turning 80 recently?

“It is a number which alarms me,” he said in an interview. “Yesterday I was 17. But I guess if people want to make something of it, it’s OK.”

And what people are making of it is a big to-do. All year long, Strouse will be the centerpiece of celebrations and special events — including one in San Francisco on June 30. Also, his memoir, “Put on a Happy Face,” is being published next month.

If you don’t recognize Strouse’s name, you almost certainly know his music: “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie”; “Put on a Happy Face” from “Bye Bye Birdie”; “Those Were the Days,” the song that opened more than 200 episodes of the sitcom “All in the Family.”

All told, Strouse has written the score for more than 30 stage musicals, four Hollywood films and even an opera. His songs have been recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Jay-Z. He’s won three Tony Awards, two Grammys and two Emmys, and has been inducted into two Halls of Fame, one for songwriters and one for theater.

One might think this would be a good time for Strouse to take off his shoes and kick back — enjoy the fruits of some 60 years of labor.

But Strouse is traveling extensively for special tributes honoring him. He has already been feted at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at the Paley Center for Media in New York, and this fall there will be a salute to him in London.

On June 30, he’ll be honored at the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco at the performance of “You’ve Got Possibilities!,” a celebration of musicals of the ’60s by 42nd Street Moon. The S.F. production company’s annual fundraising performance includes songs from “Mame,” “Camelot” and “Dames at Sea,” to name just a few, and also will feature guest stars such as Andrea McArdle (“Annie”) and Susan Watson (“Bye Bye Birdie”).

In addition to attending many such tributes, Strouse also plans a fall tour of colleges and universities, where he will offer workshops for theater and music students.

All of that is in addition to a national tour to promote his new book.

And if that’s not enough, the new octogenarian also is putting the finishing touches on a stage version of “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” scheduled to open next year in Los Angeles. He also has musical adaptations of Paddy Chayevsky’s “Marty” and Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” in the works.

What drives him to do so much? Strouse admits that at least part of it stems from insecurity; not all his babies are equally adored and appreciated. “Dance A Little Closer,” for example, written with Alan Jay Lerner, closed after one performance in 1983.

“People judge a show on whether it’s a hit or not,” Strouse explains in a telephone interview. “They don’t ever probe into the quality of the music — or lack of it. I’ve had my share of hurt.”

Strouse says that while he does think of himself as a good composer, “most of the time, frankly, I have a lot of doubts. honestly, it’s something I wrestle with. I still think I caught ’em on a good day — which I think is very Jewish.

“That’s one of the reasons that Jews in the old country lived in small quarters. Something in their makeup made them feel they were challenging God if they were having things too good.”

Strouse was born in a middle-class

Jewish family in Manhattan; there was a piano in the house, and he started taking lessons at a very young age.

“I was born into a Jewish family and my mother is somewhat religious,” Strause says. “I went to Hebrew school, but like many Jews today, I’m an atheist. My sister, who I was probably closest to when I was growing up, died of breast cancer after five years of operations. [She] lived in the south and the rabbi came over from Tallahassee and told us that God in his wisdom had chosen to take this beautiful young girl. She was only in her forties.

“At that point I remember feeling — and my mind may have made this story a little more dramatic — that there was no God. I know that’s not the right thing to say, but that’s the wonderful thing about Judaism — it even accepts people with my personality and temperament, who know there’s no God.”

While neither Strouse nor his father were bar mitzvahed, both of Charles’ sons went to Israel “and had themselves bar mitzvahed. I didn’t understand that exactly, [but] I didn’t question what they did.”

His Jewish background comes out in some of Strouse’s music, most notably in his score for “Rags,” a show about the immigrant experience.

But it also comes out in his stories.

“Once, when I was in London, I met a very well known woman, a countess, very wealthy and part of the theatrical scene,” Strouse says. “We had lunch one day in her mansion, service by her butlers, and the conversation came around to where I said, ‘I’m Jewish.’

“‘You’re Jewish?’ she asked. Her whole temperament changed. From being this proper British lady to someone that suggested Eastern Europe to me. Yes, I am a Jew. I describe myself as a Jew. I just don’t believe in God.”

Strouse has a career path of many interesting twists and turns. Early on, he wrote songs for performers such as Kaye Ballard and Carol Burnett. He also played piano offstage on the TV show “The Goldbergs” some 50 years ago, while Molly Goldberg’s daughter Rosalie supposedly played on camera.

In 1958, Strouse and writing partner Lee Adams auditioned to write the music for a new show about American teenagers. “Bye Bye Birdie” earned them a Tony their first time out.

That was followed by several seminal Broadway shows, including “Annie,” “Applause,” “All American, Golden Boy,” “Flowers for Algernon” and “Rags.”

There were movie scores as well, such as “Bonnie & Clyde” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” In 1958, he even had a top-20 radio hit, “Born Too Late” (recorded by the Poni-Tails). He and a friend wrote it in about 15 minutes while waiting for a tardy player to show up at a poker game.

His career places him in the same pantheon as Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and other composers who created the American songbook. With few exceptions (Cole Porter most prominent among them), it is a book written primarily by Jews.

“I don’t know the exact reason [for that],” Strouse says. “My sense of music history is that in Europe, serious music composition — symphonies and operas — was almost exclusively non-Jewish composers. They were left out because of an unspoken anti-Semitism. They could connect only with light music, not serious music.”

“You’ve Got Possibilities!” celebrates musicals of the ’60s and includes a special salute to Charles Strouse. Performance by 42nd Street Moon, with guest stars. Reception and silent auction June 30 at 5:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m. at the Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., S.F. Tickets: $100 ($75 tax deductible). More information: (415) 255-8207 or

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.