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'Sophisticated Ladies' Producer Manheim Fox Dies at 77

Manheim Fox - P 2012

The musical dance hit in the early 1980s starred Gregory Hines won two Tony Awards. He also did an eclectic show with Salvador Dali at Lincoln Center.

Manheim Fox, who produced the original Broadway production of Sophisticated Ladies, the 1980s musical dance sensation starring Gregory Hines, died Sept. 23 in Phoenix of complications from a heart condition. He was 77.

Sophisticated Ladies, based on the music of jazz legend Duke Ellington, opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in March 1981 and closed in January 1983 after 767 performances. The show, which used tap, swing and jazz dance to tell its story through song, earned eight Tony Award nominations, including one for best musical, and won two trophies.

Fox got the idea for the show after he produced a five-album retrospective of Ellington's music. He went on to produce five companies of Sophisticated Ladies in Japan, Russia and elsewhere.

In the early 1960s, Fox produced A Happening With Salvador Dali at the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in Lincoln Center. The performance-art spectacle featured the Spanish surrealist facing the audience and painting on a huge scrim onstage while ballet dancers improvised to a live jazz band.

Fox also produced albums featuring Orson Welles' broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which in 1938 panicked radio listeners who thought Martians were invading Earth; The Golden Age of Comedy, narrated by George Burns; and Showstoppers, a collection of 50 performances by the original casts in Broadway musicals that included Ethel Merman, Rex Harrison, Barbra Streisand and Ezio Pinza.

For television, he produced The Best of Broadway for CBS and Enchanted Evenings With Rodgers & Hammerstein for PBS. He also did the first video compilation of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

The native New Yorker's first big gig came in 1959 when he presented a show called The Roots of Jazz at the famed Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. He followed with jazz festivals starring Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan and folk festivals at Carnegie Hall featuring a theatricalization of Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag featuring Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Staple Singers.

More recently, Fox produced the original children's musicals On Our Own, Relatively Speaking and Questionable Quest at the Beacon Theatre in New York to be filmed live on stage. 

When he lived in Puerto Rico, Fox hosted a weekly radio show called From Here to Broadway and wrote a weekly newspaper column for The San Juan Star called “Diary of a Producer.”

Survivors include sons Stephen, Richard, Jon and William and three grandchildren.

Mike.Barnes@THR.com

Twitter: @mikebarnes4