As reported by Playbill On-Line back in May 1996, America will be getting two big-budget musicals based on the life of 1920s singer, Al Jolson.
Jolson: The Musical, an award-winning hit in London, bravely announced that it would cross the Atlantic and open on Broadway as one of the first musicals of the 1997-98 season. But within weeks, an American version of the story The Jazz Singer (named after the very first commercially released talking film, in which Jolson starred), announced it was going into rehearsal with an opening planned for fall 1996 or winter 1997. The American show, now scheduled to arrive Jan. 1999, has a score by Will Holt and book by Sherman Yellen.
The similarly delayed London Jolson: The Musical, penned by Francis Essex & Rob Bettinson from an idea by Michael Freedland, now has scheduled its U.S. premiere, Oct. 13 at Cleveland, OH's Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square for 3-week run. A 34-city national tour of the show, directed by Bruce Lumpkin (Walnut Street Theatre's The Goodbye Girl), follows.
Spokespersons at Cromarty & Co. couldn't say whether Brian Conley, an Olivier Award nominee for his star turn in the London production, would repeat his Jolson in the U.S. tour.
Will one Jolson trump the other, as happened when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced he was doing Phantom of the Opera -- while both Ken Hill and Maury Yeston had their own versions in the pipeline in the early 1980s? Stay tuned. Production spokesperson Phil Thurston (of Cromarty & Co.) did tell Playbill On-Line it was unlikely the Jolson's would go head to-head for a long time, since Broadway was not on the touring itinerary of Jolson: The Musical. "We're playing a lot of big cities across the country," said Thurston, "but if we hit New York, that'll be a whole other announcement at that point." The U.S. Jolson features costumes by Bruce Harrow, lighting by John McLain, sets by James Fouchard, and choreography by Richard Stafford.
Al Jolson was a blackface comedian who became popular for his soulful renditions of "Mammy," "Swanee" and other songs. Offstage, he was married to singer Ruby Keeler.
The American Jazz Singer is positioned to hit Broadway this December, producer Marvin A. Krauss told Playbill On-Line. Krauss said he is currently negotiating for a Broadway theatre. The show is set to begin previews Dec. 17 and open Jan. 7, 1999, after a four week, out-of-town tryout at Boston's Colonial Theatre, starting Nov. 2. Sam Harris is slated for the lead. Krauss said no other casting was set. Will Holt (Jack) wrote the music and lyrics and Sherman Yellen penned the book. Gabriel Barre will direct and Randy Skinner will provide the choreography.
The show intends to take a realistic look at Jolson's life, focusing particularly on his relationship to his father, his wife Ruby Keeler, his audience, and his ego. Also addressed will be Jolson's trademark propensity to perform in blackface. Holt will fill the score with songs written in the style of the popular composers of Jolson's day, such as Irving Berlin and Harry Warren. Also included will be various songs the singer made famous, such as "Swanee," "April Showers," "Baby Face," and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! Goodbye."
Jolson (1886-1950), billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer," starred in such hit musicals as Sinbad and Bombo. His made movie history in 1927 by appearing in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer.