After Midnight Evokes the Swing Era

After Midnight Evokes the Swing Era

Stars from today’s world of pop, rock and hip-hop, including Grammy® Award-winner Fantasia, reinvent the sexy glamour of the Jazz Age in After Midnight, a sizzling new Broadway musical that brings a fresh and contemporary vibe to the music that was in vogue at the legendary Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance. 

“I’d like the audience to escape for 90 minutes — to forget what is happening outside the doors of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre,” says Warren Carlyle, director and choreographer of the exciting new show, which begins performances on October 18. “I would like them to have the best music and the best entertainment that they can have, with nothing to tether them to the ground — to just immerse in this wonderful world.” That world, of course, is the famous Harlem nightspot, which, between the years of 1927 and 1931, was presided over by the consummate jazz artist and bandleader Duke Ellington.
The idea for the show celebrating the era of big band swing and blues music originated with Jack Viertel, artistic director of Encores!, a New York City Center program dedicated to the American musical. He and Carlyle took the concept to Wynton Marsalis, a winner of nine Grammy Awards, the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and the managing and artistic director of the city’s premier jazz organization, Jazz at Lincoln Center. The show — which in an earlier incarnation, titled Cotton Club Parade, enjoyed two previous sold-out engagements at City Center — features Ellington’s signature orchestral pieces — “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” “Cotton Club Stomp” — as well as standards from the era, such as Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’s beloved hits “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Digga Digga Doo” and Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” 

The cast of After Midnight features American Idol winner Fantasia as “Special Guest Star” and Emmy® nominee Dulé Hill (The West Wing) as the evening’s Host. Others in the 25-member company include Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox, who received rave reviews in the show’s earlier incarnation for her rendition of Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise” and Ethel Waters’s “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night”; RemoteKontrol’s Julius “iGlide” Chisholm, who provides his interpretation of the popular 1920s Harlem “snakehips” dance; hip-hop star Virgil J. Gadson; Tony nominee Karine Plantadit (Come Fly Away); and tap dancers Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Jared Grimes. 

A live band comprised of 17 world-class jazz musicians from The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars performs on stage using Ellington’s original musical arrangements (which in some instances have been lovingly reconstructed for this production). The arrangements have provided Carlyle with a blueprint for choreographing the 25-plus musical numbers and specialty acts in the floor show. “These orchestrations are like a conversation,” he notes. “When you hear that clarinet play, it sounds like a young girl; the tuba sounds like a middle-aged woman with a large bosom. I hear it like dialogue, so I was very keen to marry the dance with the orchestrations. In one of the numbers, for instance, a girl dances the clarinet line and another is the trombone.” The musical numbers in the show are interspersed with snippets from the writings of Langston Hughes, poet of the Harlem Renaissance. “The poetry takes us from moment to moment, or gives a particular song a context,” Carlyle explains. “For my taste, it also gives the audience’s ears a rest. I think it is important to hear the spoken word.”

“It is such a fun challenge to honor this music, to appeal to a modern audience but to also honor what came before,” Carlyle continues. “I wanted to be inspired by the period but not be bound by it.” The Drama Desk-nominated director and choreographer (whose work on Broadway includes A Christmas Story and the recent revivals of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Follies, and Finian’s Rainbow) says he spent countless hours listening to the music of the era and poring over old photographs, but also felt free to reinterpret the material. “I wanted to be a little bit more dangerous, maybe, with the choreography and the design of the show. We can’t go back in time, but what if we got to create the most perfect floor show ever? What would that be like?” His direction to the designers, he adds, was, “Let’s start with the period — let’s look at what they were wearing at the time — and then put it through our lens now, in 2013.” The costumes for After Midnight are designed by fashion designer Isabel Toledo, who is famous for creating first lady Michele Obama’s dress for the 2009 Presidential Inauguration

The Cotton Club — brainchild of Owney Madden, a notorious gangster incarcerated at the time in Sing Sing prison — began life in 1923 as a Prohibition-era speakeasy located on the premises of a former casino at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. By the time Ellington and his band, the Washingtonians, were hired as the house orchestra, the club had become a fashionable New York venue, delivering to its rich, white clientele the very best in black entertainment. Ellington’s years at the Cotton Club helped to advance his career and his development as a musician; regular broadcasts from the club by CBS Radio enhanced his reputation nationwide. And while the management enforced a reprehensible racist audience admission policy — relaxed only marginally at Ellington’s insistence to allow friends of the musicians to be part of the audience, albeit occupying the worst seats in the house — the club’s dazzling floor shows helped foster the talents of a now-famous roster of African American artists, including the Nicholas Brothers, Ethel Waters, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Bessie Smith, Peg Leg Bates, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne, a teenager at the time. The club closed in the aftermath of the 1935 Harlem Riots, then reopened in Times Square for a brief period, eventually shutting its doors permanently in 1940.

Back in the day, on “Celebrity Night,” a wide array of stars and public figures trekked uptown on Sundays to make an appearance at the Cotton Club. Among such luminaries: Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, George Gershwin, Moss Hart, Al Jolson, Paul Robeson, Sophie Tucker, Mae West, and NYC mayor Jimmy Walker. In this spirit, After Midnight will feature a rotating roster of Special Guest Stars. Fantasia, who performs with the company through February 9, will be followed by pop and country singer-songwriter k.d. lang, who joins the production from February 11 through March 9. After lang’s stint with the show, Grammy winners Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds will join the company from March 18 through March 30.  “What fun to be able to do this right from the get-go and not be shy about it,” exclaims Carlyle. “It is wonderful that the show will get a jolt of energy and be constantly refreshed each time. We are going to find really interesting people and it will make you want to come to see the show over again!” He says the production will retain much of the same structure, but he expects to put in new numbers and incorporate personal favorites as each new guest star comes on board.

“My reason for doing this show is absolutely the music,” says Carlyle. “This sound is so special; it is unlike anything else. And it was a great opportunity to build this fantastic floor show with amazing talent. I think the Cotton Club was a great escape for the artists and for the audience,” the director concludes. “I am hoping that After Midnight will be this utopian world where everything is perfect and airborne — a wonderful, fantastical, and magical world.”

Photo courtesy of the 2012 Encores! Production.