Ira Gasman, Brought ‘The Life’ to Life

May 29, 1942 - Oct. 6, 2018
Ira Gasman, May 29, 1942 - Oct. 6, 2018

“Dear Ira, your work is as good as ever. I saw the show last night. Congratulations.”

So wrote Stephen Sondheim, the master of musical theater, to Ira Gasman, a former Sag Harbor resident, about his concept and lyrics for the 1997 Broadway show “The Life,” about the hookers and hustlers of old Times Square — some gold-hearted, some not — with music by a fellow South Fork resident, Cy Coleman. 

The note was treasured by Mr. Gasman, who died of complications following respiratory failure on Saturday at the age of 76 after a career that ranged from Catskills comedy to stages in New York, Houston, and London just last year.

“The Life” on Broadway gathered 12 Tony Award nominations and won for best featured actor (Chuck Cooper as a villainous super-pimp) and best featured actress (Lillias White, who brought the house down nightly with her raucous complaint about “getting too old for the oldest profession”). It also won 1997 Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League Awards for best musical.

But success did not come quickly or easily, Mr. Gasman noted in a letter printed in the program of the show’s London revival. More than a decade of revision and refinement with Mr. Coleman and the screenwriter David Newman (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Superman,” “Superman II”) was required to get “The Life” to Broadway.

“I would work for days just to get two words right, and sometimes weeks on a full lyric,” Mr. Gasman recalled. “I’d then bring it to Cy, who would put it up on his piano and immediately start creating the perfect melody for it. Some might find that maddening. To me it was magical.” 

He was born to Jerome and Beatrice Gasman on May 29, 1942, in Brooklyn, and graduated from James Madison High School there. He began doing Catskills comedy in the 1960s with a New York University fraternity brother, Cary Hoffman, a singer and composer, in the manner of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 

The team later wrote what Mr. Gasman called “a typically topical, Nixon-era, musical, political, satirical revue” that featured future stars including Betty Buckley. The show was titled “What’s a Nice Country Like You Doing in a State Like This?” and it led to Mr. Gasman’s knack for lyrics being noticed by both Mr. Coleman and Mr. Sondheim.

That helped shift Mr. Gasman away from work as an ad agency vice president, though he frequently recalled his still-lingering line: “Bounty, the quicker picker upper.”

In 2003, at the Public Theater in New York, his show “Radiant Baby,” about the artist and activist Keith Haring, with music by Debra Barsha, earned a Lucille Lortel Award nomination. 

Always great fun to be around, Mr. Gasman collaborated on songs for musical theater, cabaret, television, and films with top composers including Burton Lane, Jule Styne, Steve Allen, and Galt MacDermot, and most recently the musical director Alex Rybeck. 

In Sag Harbor, Mr. Gasman enjoyed tennis in Mashashimuet Park and meals at the American Hotel, where “Radiant Baby” got an early run-through.

In Manhattan, he was a longtime resident of the Gramercy Park Hotel, which gave him access to the famous fenced-in gardens outside. He loved visiting the piano bar at Don’t Tell Mama, where everybody knew his name — and sang his songs.

Mr. Gasman died in Norfolk, Va., where he had moved to be close to his sister, Linda Dadon, and her husband, Bart. Also surviving are a niece, Allyson Pimentel, and a nephew, Theodore Yeschin, both of Los Angeles, and his partner of many years, Sallie Quirk, an East End artist. 

A memorial service in Manhattan is to be announced. Sure to be mentioned is the undying debt Mr. Gasman felt to Mr. Coleman.

“Cy was the man who gave me my dream and who changed my life,” he wrote in the London program. “And although I thanked Cy a thousand times, I never thanked him enough.”