Sunday, March 18, 2018


Film star Lena Horne made her Broadway debut in a show that was basically a concert. It didn't start that way. Jamaica was conceived as a vehicle for Calypso singer Harry Belafonte. He would play a Jamaican fisherman resisting the commercialization of the local culture and attempting to keep his NYC loving partner by his side. Some accounts say Belafonte left due to illness. Others say he was unhappy with the material.

Lena Horne had turned down St. Louis Woman in the 40's but agreed to play Jamaica's flighty leading lady. The show shifted focus to her character and the book was cut to ribbons. According to wikipedia she opts to stay in Jamaica after her fisherman beau (now played by Ricardo Montalbán) rescues her brother from a hurricane. Sure. Whatever. It ran a year and a half.

The show is so slight and dated that even Encores won't revive it. Instead they gave Vanessa Williams a handful of Horne's songs in a 2018 revue. Songs like "Push de Button," "Cocoanut Sweet" and "Ain't It The Truth" (cut from Horne's Cabin in the Sky) are worth another listen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

St. Louis Woman

Legends say that Lena Horne declined the title role when the NAACP denounced the character's "easy virtue" as demeaning. The show went through a rocky tryout and a short Broadway run. Encores produced a concert in 1998 starring Vanessa Williams. The recording is uneven but it reminds us that the score is full of gems.

"Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home"
"I Had Myself a True Love"
"Come Rain Or Come Shine"
And Pearl Bailey's 11 o'clock number "It's A Woman's Prerogative"

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Love, Simon

Love, Simon is a 2018 film based on Becky Albertalli novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon is a closeted gay teen juggling family, friendships, a blackmailer and an online romance. Indie cinema has explored the angst of the closet for decades but Love, Simon aims for the tone of a big studio romcom. Less Beautiful Thing, more 10 Things I Hate About You.

Director Greg Berlanti understands the loneliness, rage and narcissism that can accompany the coming out process. His film doesn’t shy from Simon’s cruel side as he desperately protects his secret and searches for his anonymous paramour. The audience plays detective alongside Simon as he grasps at any odd phrase or lingering glace from his male class mates. We're allowed to share that desperate desire to find someone… anyone… who understands what we're going through.

There are quibbles. Simon is ridiculously privileged. The female characters are treated poorly. The “comic relief” roles are cringey. Still Berlanti and his team have clearly put their hearts into this project. Love, Simon would have made my high school experience a little brighter and I’m glad the current generation of students gets to see it.

… Okay, it’s not a musical. Though there are two musical numbers. If they adapt it to the stage it will fit comfortably alongside Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Carmen Jones

A piece of gossip begat Mérimée's novella, which begat Bizet's Opera, which begat Hammerstein's adaptation Carmen Jones. Hammerstein remained faithful to Bizet's plot while moving the setting to WWII and filling the lyrics with 40's colloquialisms. The film is dated and heavily dubbed but it preserves the work of some extremely talented artists including Pearl Bailey and the Oscar nominated Dorothy Dandridge.

Pearl Bailey performing Rhythm on a Drum in the 1954 film.
Diahann Carroll discussing her audition for Carmen Jones.
The delightful short All The Great Operas in Ten Minutes

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Cabin in the Sky

In 2016 Encores produced a concert of Cabin in the Sky. Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jack Viertel tried to cut the condescending material from Root's original book. Critics remained unimpressed with the "religious fable" despite the jazzy score. The show is best remembered for the starry 1943 film. The film is enjoyable but only kept three songs from the stage show.

Ethel Waters singing the hit song "Taking a Chance on Love."
Lena Horne singing "Ain't It The Truth" in a bath tub. The scene was cut by the censors.
Highlights from the Encores concert starring LaChanze, Chuck Cooper and Norm Lewis.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Porgy and Bess

When Porgy and Bess returned to Broadway in 2011 it caused controversy. Director/adapter Diane Paulus had overseen multiple revisions to the libretto. Stephen Sondheim wrote the New York Times to express his disapproval.
"She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings.... let it not be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” nor even “The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.” Advertise it honestly as “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.” And the hell with the real one."
In Paulus's defense the work had already undergone major revisions within the Gershwin's lifetime. Any producer seeing the "real one" has many versions to choose from. The three act opera from 1935, the two act musical from 1942, the two act opera from 1952, and various attempts to dial up or down the characters dialects. None of these versions diminish the power or importance of the work... though I wouldn't recommend doing it with an all white cast like they tried in Switzerland.

Here's Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis performing a medley at the 2012 Tony Awards.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

In Dahomey

The full plot includes farcial hijinx with a silver casket, three barrels of whiskey and a thwarted execution.

George Walker and Bert Williams formed a vaudeville act in 1893 and toured the United States for over a decade. In 1902 they teamed up with composers Cecil Mack and Will Marion Cook to craft their act into the musical comedy In Dahomey. The show moved to Broadway in 1903. After 53 performances in New York the show toured the U.S. and London. It has been billed as "the first African-American-written musical to play a New York legit theatre.”

I've read several conflicting summaries of the plot. It was primarily a satire of colonialism that allowed Walker and Williams to play the con man/straight man pairing from their vaudeville routines. The show allowed the audience to pick a winning couple in a cakewalk dance and gave Williams his trademark song "The Jonah Man." Walker used the partnerships he made to found "an organization for African-American professional entertainers in 1908."