Arts & Culture
4:54 am
Fri June 11, 2010

Remembering Trinity Rep's DeeDee Cumming

Providence, R.I. – Tomorrow morning from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the Trinity Repertory Company will hold a memorial service for Richard Cumming, one of its own. Bill Gale takes a look back over the years.

If tomorrow's memorial is truly all about the man called Dee Dee, it will be filled with music and laughter. Sure, there will be serious moments for Cumming, who died last November at 81.

But mostly, DeeDee leaves a legacy of good cheer and confidence. He was Trinity's composer-in-residence for 25 years, writing scores for 60 or more shows.

Early on, he headed the ground-breaking Project Discovery program. He occasionally acted at the theater, and played the piano for innumerable productions.

An all around bon vivant, he was everyone's favorite. You perked up when you saw Dee Dee arriving with his dancing eyes, quick wit and disarming smile.

Dee Dee Cumming was truly Trinity's man for all seasons.

If, in the early days, founding artistic director Adrian Hall needed someone to work with educators to get Rhode Island's school kids into the theater, DeeDee did it.

Did Hall need music composed for his ground-breaking "Feasting with Panthers," the pivotal show about Oscar Wilde that traveled the world and was seen on national television? DeeDee did it.

When it was decided Trinity needed a money-maker holiday show, who co-wrote, with Hall, the adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" that filled the seats, and raised the bank account, for decades? You guessed it.

As Trinity, in the early days, struggled with what seemed one financial tsunami after another, DeeDee, in blue blazer and bow tie, was always present, always ready to see the humor in any situation. If he was down he rarely showed it.

Was he as sunny as he seemed? Trinity's one-time artistic director and now an Oscar-nominated movie actor, Richard Jenkins, thought so.

"There was a confidence about DeeDee, and there was a real confidence about his gift," Jenkins said. "And from that, I think, came the joy. He loved to live."

Cumming was born in Shanghai, China where his parents were missionaries. He studied music with some of the giants of the 20th Century, including Arnold Schoenberg and Ernest Bloch. He traveled widely as a performer and accompanist and was an up-and-coming serious music composer when he and Hall met at a theater in Milwaukee in 1963.

"I said, Hello Didi.' He said, Hello Adrian," Hall recalled of their first meeting. "I said, I thought DeeDee was a chorus girl from Las Vegas.' And he said - which has been repeated many times - And I thought Adrian Hall was a girls' dormitory at Vassar!'"

When Hall was chosen as artistic leader of Trinity, he brought Cumming along to Providence, and changed his career. While DeeDee always continued to compose, Hall needed him for many another chores, which he always performed happily.

"In retrospect, maybe if he hadn't met me, or if we hadn't gotten along so well together and worked so wonderfully together, he might have just stayed on the strict composition route, and he might have ended up with, you know, operas and so forth, because he was really capable of that," said Hall. "But that wasn't the direction the theater was going, and I guess I tried to pull him in the direction where we needed him."

Trinity continued to rise, becoming one of the first American resident theaters to win a Tony Award, voted by theater critics from across the country, in 1981.

Through all the good and bad times, Dee Dee remained a constant. His apartment on Providence's Benefit Street was filled with books and unfettered by modernity.

A computer? No. Dee Dee preferred his rugged old typewriter, not to mention his sturdy black dial phone. He never did learn to drive a car, walking every day downcity to the theater.

Jenkins remembered something else about Dee Dee.

"He smoked for years, and then he stopped for years. One day I saw him, and he was smoking," Jenkins said. "He goes, I truly enjoy it.' He thought to himself, Why am I depriving myself?'"

One of my favorite memories was of Dee Dee at Trinity's ill-fated attempt at doing lunchtime performances in a little park across the street from the theater.

One noontime I spied him there. He was accompanying Trinity singers on the piano for an audience of three or four bored spectators who chomped on their sandwiches, almost completely ignoring the performance. The singers were deflated.

But there was Richard Cumming, chipping away at the keys, smiling and laughing. He saw me, shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and winked, and kept on playing.

"What the hell," Dee Dee seemed to be saying. "It's a beautiful day and we're alive to enjoy it, are we not?"

That's how I will remember Dee Dee Cumming: laughing through a tough moment, his eye on the prize. He once wrote in the liner notes of one of his albums, "Live each day as if it were your last; drain it of every drop of juice it can provide."

One of Dee Dee's army of good friends, Edward Markward, musican, conductor and professor at Rhode Island College, said this of Cumming: "His way of sharing everything is the thing by which I will remember him most. Of course, I love his music, but I think, the generosity of spirit is what I think of most when I think of Richard."

That sums up Richard Cumming. Spirit and generosity are what the man was about. Many of us will never forget his ready smile, his willingness to see the best in things.

So long, DeeDee. Rest in Peace.