What do you get when you take the timeless music of Duke Ellington, Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields and Harold Arlen and put it together with talent like America’s Got Talent alumni dancer Julius “iGlide” Chisolm of RemoteKontrol; a quartet led by Everett Bradley (a member of Bruce Springstein’s E Street Band); au courant fashion designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo; Michael Jackson’s tap coach, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards; Tony Award-nominated modern dancer Karine Plantadit; and contemporary vocalists like Fantasia, k.d. lang, Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds?
You get a modern mashup of old meets new in the new Broadway musical After Midnight, set it in a Harlem’s hot-spot like The Cotton Club. Fantasia will be the first guest artist in what will be a changing roster of contemporary vocalists and other performers.
The music of Duke Ellington has been featured many times on Broadway. It was used in such hits as Sophisticated Ladies, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Swing!, and Black and Blue, to name just a few. Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields and Harold Arlen also had more than their share of Broadway exposure. Fields wrote the book for Annie Get Your Gun and the lyrics for Sweet Charity. Fields’ and McHugh’s songs appeared on Broadway as far back as 1928 with Blackbirds of ‘28, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Black and Blue, and Swing!. Arlen’s music was used in Swing!, Black and Blue, and Blues in the Night. But never have their songs been treated with such a modern and hip veneer.
Rooted in the blues, jazz was influenced by African and West Indies’ rhythms and religious call-and-response. Initially, jazz represented freedom to those who had none. Emotional release and self-expression came through song, with the music mirroring the full range of human emotions. Jazz has no rules; there are no chains binding you. Frequently, large portions of it aren’t even written down; when your turn comes, you play how you feel.
In 1927 in Manhattan’s Harlem, the prestigious Cotton Club was looking for a new band leader. It found that leader in the suave and elegant Duke Ellington. Ellington and his band had been performing at the Kentucky Club, just off Manhattan’s Times Square when the call came.
Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, known for such classics as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Exactly Like You,” worked with Ellington at The Cotton Club creating the club’s acts during the latter ‘20s and early ‘30s. The acts changed every six months. One of the most popular acts during that period was called Cotton Club Parade, the original title of After Midnight when it premiered for two sold-out performances at City Center in 2011 with Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars. Marsalis is the music director of After Midnight as well as one of the show’s producers.
The Cotton Club was the place to be on a Saturday night during the Great Depression. It represented a good night out with a hint of danger brought on by Prohibition. It boasted some of the biggest names in jazz, playing host to Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday. After Midnight will recreate this with its rotating roster of inventive guest artists.
Like the music of generations before and after, the music of the Swing Era and the Great Depression represented the national mood. It told a story of heartbreak and that eternal American optimism. The country was at a point where it needed lifting up, particularly when one in four workers was out of work. The music told of stormy weather, made a walk on the sunny side of the street possible, and implored you to get happy.
“In the Swing Era, jazz dominated the music charts for a reason. It’s sophisticated yet down-home, and people can get down for a profoundly good time while still being uplifted” says Marsalis.
The music asks a certain sensibility and talent of its musicians. The show’s musical coordinator, Daryl Waters, explains what they were looking for in the musicians hired for the gig. “Sometimes you want a wail, or you want a growl,” Says Waters. “Those are the kinds of sounds that are idiomatic to jazz in terms of self-expression.” Marsalis handpicked all the musicians to be a part of his Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars. “Each of these band members can stand on their own at the top of their class,” says Waters.
If you find yourself wondering how Broadway can capture the usually un-bottle-able extemporaneousness of jazz, Waters says that the show obviously will have a structure but there will be “lots and lots and lots of improvising. You know you have eight or 16 bars to express yourself, whether it’s one of the band members, one of the dancers, or one of the singers.”
The music of After Midnight is tied together with the poetry of Langston Hughes, another important figure in what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Waters says, “They were looking for poetry that would tie the evening together and take us on a journey. In some cases there were songs they knew they wanted. Sometimes there are points they wanted to make with the Langston poetry. It’s used to introduce a song and sometimes it supports the general feeling of the evening.”
After Midnight will feature an onstage band of 17 musicians, a cast of 25, and changing celebrity guests, the first of which will be Fantasia. Dulé Hill and Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox also star.
While things aren’t as dark in this country as they were in 1929, the economy has made many an American blue. A dose of edgy excitement Cotton Club-style may be just the thing we need.
Photo courtesy of the 2012 Encores! Production.