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Jackson Twenty-One developer Mitch Leigh, the composer of Broadway's "Man of La Mancha," speaks to the Jackson Chamber of Commerce at the Metedeconk National Golf Club in March 2013. / Thomas P. Costello, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

JACKSON, N.J. -- After more than 25 years in the making, Jackson Twenty-One's welcome center will open this spring, but Mitch Leigh, the man who first envisioned it, will not see it.

Leigh, the Tony Award-winning composer of the famed 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha who also aspired to build a commercial and residential development "for nice people" in New Jersey, died Sunday in New York at 86.

Leigh died of pneumonia and complications from a stroke, said his assistant, Lisa Maldonado. A memorial was being held Monday afternoon in Manhattan.

"Like the rest of the world, I'm deeply saddened by his loss, especially on the cusp of what he was trying to do for Jackson and the surrounding areas," said Jackson Mayor Michael Reina, who attended a mediation meeting for Leigh's Jackson Twenty-One as recently as last week. "Right now, our thoughts and prayers are with him (and) his family."

Leigh's passion for real estate followed a successful career on Broadway. He was an advertising jingle writer whose debut attempt at writing music for a Broadway show became the instant, celebrated 1965 hit Man of La Mancha.

With a book by Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion (after W.H. Auden dropped out), La Mancha won five Tony Awards, ran for over 2,000 performances, and was translated into a dozen languages. The show's most popular song, The Quest (popularly known as The Impossible Dream) hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1966 and has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Placido Domingo and Cher.

A film version starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren was released in 1972. The musical has been revived four times on Broadway -- most recently in 2003 with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Brian Stokes Mitchell -- and has hundreds of productions a year throughout the world. The show played for 253 performances in London at the Piccadilly Theatre.

"Mitch was a unique man, one of those larger than life types. I learned a lot from him. He used to come to all of our orchestra rehearsals in each new city. He often conducted the overture on opening nights and the trumpet players would be nervous because they had never seen him conduct," said Cherie Rosen, who worked on the last two Broadway revivals of La Mancha and is the musical supervisor of the current national tour.

Born Irwin Michnick in the Brooklyn borough of New York in 1928, Leigh served in the Army and received bachelor's and master's degrees from Yale University.

He created his own a radio and television commercial production house in 1957, called Music Makers, Inc., which turned out jingles for hundreds of commercials. He penned Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee, and his clients included American Airlines and Polaroid. He got into musical theater after supplying incidental music to Too True to be Good by George Bernard Shaw.

Leigh followed up his early theatrical success with La Mancha by producing and directing for the Broadway stage, including a 1985 production of The King and I with Yul Brynner for which he earned a best director Tony nomination. But he never again reached the dizzying heights he did with La Mancha.

He also produced The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm in 1999, supplied the music for Ain't Broadway Grand in 1993, produced Chu Chem, billed as the first Chinese-Jewish musical in 1989, and backed a 1983 revival of Mame with Angela Lansbury.

Later, he turned to real estate and the creation of the huge New Jersey project known as Jackson Twenty-One.

In 1988, the planned downtown-style neighborhood, which promised homes and shops on more than 900 acres owned by the composer, received approval from Jackson Township. However, Leigh encountered a number of setbacks during the ensuing quarter-century that delayed his dream until a modified plan was finally approved in 2012 and construction was set to begin this spring.

On local television commercials about the project, the composer specified that he wanted only nice people, especially those who love the arts and sports, to live in his development.

"We're going to hope to fulfill his dream by continuing to move forward on the project with our support and respect for the man," Reina said.

Leigh is survived by his wife, the artist Abby Leigh; their two children, David and Rebecca;, and a son, Andy, from a previous marriage.

(Contributing: Associated Press)



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Mitch Leigh, composer of 'Man of La Mancha,' dies

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