Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, on 25 September 1914, Wright studied piano as a child and formed his own band in high school. In 1933, he and his former school friend Forrest, whom he met via the Glee Club, embarked on a tour of the country with their own cabaret show, featuring music they’d written themselves.
While doing a gig in Hollywood, the pair was offered work at the movie studio MGM, where they stayed for seven years, churning out songs for myriad films. They quit the studio in protest when asked to rewrite lyrics for a screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hart’s successful Broadway musical I Married an Angel.
Their own first stage musical was 1943’s Song of Norway, a fictionalised biography of Edvard Grieg, which, after success in Los Angeles, transferred to Broadway and on to London, where it ran for two years. It was also made into a 1950 film. Song of Norway was followed by Gypsy Lady (1946), Magdalena (1948), Kean (1961) and Anya (1965). But their biggest hit was the Arabian Nights-inspired Kismet. It opened in New York in 1953 and in London in 1955, the same year that it was made into a Hollywood film directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Another big hit, albeit belatedly, for Wright and Forrest was Grand Hotel. Based on Vicki Baum’s novel, filmed by MGM in 1932, they first adapted the story, about a luxurious Berlin hotel and its guests in its 1920s heyday, in 1958 under the title At the Grand, but it closed before reaching Broadway. The piece was revived, under the title Grand Hotel, with additional material by Maury Yeston, in 1989 and was a smash, going on to win five Tony Awards including Best Direction for Tommy Tune.
That production of Grand Hotel transferred for a run at the West End’s Dominion Theatre in 1992, while a scaled-down version of the musical received critical acclaim under artistic director Michael Grandage’s direction at the end of last year at the Donmar Warehouse.
- by Terri Paddock