Milt Okun’s wild ride

A few years ago, Rosemary Okun, wife of veteran music producer, arranger and singer Milt Okun, had an inspired idea: take a who’s who lineup from the opera world and pair the performers with John Denver compositions.

In some ways, it made perfect sense. Not only did her husband of 55 years work with and discover Denver, but he did the same for celebrated tenor Plácido Domingo.

Due late this year, “Great Voices Sing John Denver” will be an album of 13 opera singers covering some of the singer/songwriter’s most cherished chestnuts, including “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

“We tried a dozen songs from the best opera singers,” Milt Okun told the Journal. “We approached them by sending a CD and John’s songbook, and they each picked a favorite song and we recorded.”

One of those songs will be “Perhaps Love,” a hit for Domingo and Denver as a duo 25 years ago.

“‘Perhaps Love’ launched [Domingo] as a crossover artist,” said Richard Sparks, Okun’s son-in-law, who helped him write his 2011 memoir, “Along the Cherry Lane.”

On “Voices” — recorded by Okun and composer Lee Holdridge over a six-month period in New York, Los Angeles, London and Munich — the opera star will be singing the song with his son, Okun said.

Overall, he continued, “It was very exciting to hear these great, great voices from the world of opera sing these beautiful songs. It turned out to be very appropriate because the songs can take voices. Each one is different, very special.”

Okun, 89, with his signature thick black frames, mentored numerous successful acts throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, breaking folk, opera and country acts. His publishing house, Cherry Lane Music, handled Elvis Presley, and he was instrumental in the recording careers of Peter, Paul and Mary; Odetta; even Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) from “Captain Kangaroo.”

The Beverly Hills resident’s parents were Jewish first cousins who originally hailed from a town 40 miles from Chernobyl. Left-wing political activists who lived into their 90s, the pair moved to Brooklyn and came to own the Adirondacks resort Schroon Crest, where Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers performed. They socialized with Arthur Miller (Okun’s father turned down investing in “Death of a Salesman”) and photographer Milton Greene.

Secularly raised, Okun said, “I believe in music and art.” Yet Okun repeatedly recorded with Shlomo Carlebach — known as “The Singing Rabbi.”
Growing up, Okun had hoped to be a concert pianist, but these plans were derailed when he came down with arthritis at age 14.

“The only cure was go to bed. I went to bed for two years. When I woke up, I couldn’t play,” he said. “I was disappointed. I had no clue for a while what I was going to do. So I became a teacher.”

Eventually, Okun said, “Harry Belafonte hired me to play in his group. I could play pop music.”

As his career progressed, it wasn’t unusual for Okun to bring his work home.

“All these groups used to sing in the living room,” Okun’s daughter, Jenny Okun, remembered. “I used to fall asleep to Peter, Paul and Mary.”

At the dawn of the 1970s, some serious syzygy occurred for Okun. His book of arrangements, “Great Songs of the Sixties,” sold 1.1 million copies and included choice Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel selections.

Bob Flick of the Brothers Four had told Okun about Denver after catching him at Pasadena’s Ice House, then a folk music club. When Chad Mitchell quit his eponymous Chad Mitchell Trio, Okun had Denver replace him.

When folk music started evaporating, Okun relocated from New York to England to start over — until “John exploded. I came back.”

Soon, Denver pursued a solo career. Many rejected the talented New Mexican, but Okun negotiated a $20,000 advance on a four-album contract with an enthusiastic RCA exec, according to Okun. Several smash hits later, Denver became a successful singer and movie star.

“He had a new offer from one of the subsidiaries of RCA,” Okun said. “He had been [negotiating] himself and making a mess of it. I arranged for him to meet music attorney David Braun. He finally agreed.”

Denver died at 53 on Oct. 12, 1997, when his experimental single-engine plane crashed near Pacific Grove, Calif.

Okun last saw him three days prior, when Denver played a West Valley gig.

Okun strongly rejects post-crash insinuations that divorce had tail-spun Denver into a suicidal depression. No drugs or alcohol appeared in Denver’s autopsy. Things were looking up, he said.

These days, the Okun family is not exactly taking trips down Cherry Lane. As Milt finalizes distribution on “Voices,” his wife is self-publishing “An Imperfect Life: Poems and Drawings.”

Okun’s daughter and her husband, Sparks, are readying “Dulce Rosa,” an opera based on Isabel Allende’s short story “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”). Sparks will write/direct the Broad Stage/L.A. Opera co-production, with music by Holdridge and with Domingo conducting. Jenny Okun did the set design, and 300 rear projections are based on her footage shot in Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Mexico. “Dulce Rosa” will premiere May 17.

As for Milt Okun, there’s no golf or shuffleboard. After years of hard work, this octogenarian enjoys resting on his hard-earned laurels.

“I do a lot of reading, watching TV,” he said, smiling. “I do what I please.”

Tale of the ‘Stranger’ leaps from book to musical

It was 1985, and many of the Ethiopian Jews who’d been airlifted from Sudan were being housed in a hotel in Netanya, Israel. When writer Sonia Levitin entered the temporary nursery, she was particularly struck by all the babies and toddlers who’d been born since their families had arrived.

“I remember one baby grabbing onto the side of his crib, jumping up and down, just like any baby anywhere in the world, but he was crying out ‘Ima, Ima!'” she said. When the mother leaned over to pick him up, Levitin noticed her tattoos, especially the one on her forehead.

“That was one of the things they would do to avoid persecution — tattoo a cross on their forehead,” she said.

Levitin is the author of more than 40 books for children and adults, and she understands what it’s like to be a refugee. Although she was only 4 years old when her family escaped Nazi Germany, she has strong memories of her childhood. As a result, Levitin said, she’s “always been mindful of how it feels to be a stranger; how it feels to be persecuted.”

When she read about Israel’s rescue of Beta Yisrael (black Jews from Ethiopia) and Operation Moses, the secret airlift that brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the mid-1980s, she immediately felt an affinity with their plight. So she went to Israel to observe firsthand the results. Seeing that mother and child in Netanya was a pivotal moment: They represented “the perfect joining of two cultures,” she said, and she felt compelled to write about it.

The result was her young adult novel, “The Return” (1987), which won numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award in Children’s Literature and the PEN Los Angeles Award for Young Adult Fiction, and it has become a staple in school curricula around the country. On June 5, the book’s dramatization — replete with songs and dance — will premiere at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Theatre as part of the Festival of New American Musicals.

The show, directed and choreographed by Tony-nominee Donald McKayle, with music by William Anderson and lyrics by Levitin and Myla Lichten Fields, tells the story of a handful of villagers from northern Ethiopia and their hazardous trek to Sudan, their departure point for Israel. As seen primarily through the eyes of Desta, a 12-year-old girl, the story illustrates the prejudice and persecution that drove the so-called “Falasha” (a derogatory term meaning “strangers”) to risk attack, disease and starvation in the hope of escape.

Despite her prolific and successful career as a writer, Levitin said that she’s always felt “light opera/opera and stage musicals are the most complete artistic renderings of a story.” But it wasn’t until she saw dances (choreographed by McKayle) during a 2000 benefit for Sudan — at which readings from her book about modern-day slavery in Sudan, “Dream Freedom,” were also performed — that Levitin seriously considered creating a musical herself. Impressed with McKayle’s work, she asked whether he thought “The Return” had potential as a stage musical.

“It’s a tremendously rich and dramatic story and has all the elements that make for good theater,” said McKayle, who has choreographed more than 90 works for dance companies around the world, including many that have become classics in modern dance. Convinced it was an important story to put on stage, to get it “into the public mind,” he agreed not only to choreograph but also to direct the production.

Levitin then turned to a longtime friend, composer Anderson, for help with the music.

“I knew I couldn’t pay much, so I asked Will if he might know a student who’d be interested in working on the score.” Instead, after reading the book, Anderson decided to write it himself. The result is, according to McKayle, “rhythmic, rich and full of texture, which is a tremendous asset in creating dance.”

Anderson asked Levitin to write the lyrics, and she was surprised at how much she enjoyed the process. She’d written some poems before, but this was different: “I could hardly stop; the words just kept coming out of me,” she said.

Unlike a book, which can use interior monologue and narration to convey emotion, Levitin believes writing for the stage requires “emphasizing emotion in a song — music always brings it out in a deeper way.”

When writing lyrics, Levitin first thinks about the universality of what she wants to convey, then begins “with just one line that is true for me,” she said. For the song Desta sings just before she and her siblings leave their village, “How Can I Say Goodbye?” Levitin drew upon a lesson she learned in her own childhood: “Once you are forced away, there is always an echo of something that was left behind.”

Like many of Levitin’s works, “Return” is ultimately a study of fear, courage and faith, of prevailing against all odds. Children and adults, Levitin said, need the same kind of inspiration; she believes her “stories of purpose” can make a difference.

“Everyone deals with adversity, everyone has problems,” she said. “And we’re all afraid. But the question is: What are you going to do?”

“Return” opens June 5 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica. Show times
Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings are 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., June 5 through June 29 and July 10 through July 20.

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