Bway's Jazz Singer Might Still Sing -- And Carry a (Tommy) Tune

News   Bway's Jazz Singer Might Still Sing -- And Carry a (Tommy) Tune Weeks ago, Broadway plans for The Jazz Singer, a musical based on the life of Al Jolson, looked to be all but dead. A major investor didn't come through with promised funds, and the producers went scrambling for other monies to make up the shortfall in time for a Boston tryout.

Weeks ago, Broadway plans for The Jazz Singer, a musical based on the life of Al Jolson, looked to be all but dead. A major investor didn't come through with promised funds, and the producers went scrambling for other monies to make up the shortfall in time for a Boston tryout.

Though no plans are remotely confirmed yet, producer Hy Juter told Playbill On-Line (Aug. 18) the show has raised the necessary capital to keep going, although Boston might have to be postponed. Another sign of the show's resuscitation: Juter and co-producer Marvin Krauss have been talking with nine-time Tony winner Tommy Tune about coming in to direct the show in place of current director Gabriel Barre.

"Nothing's confirmed yet, but [Tune's] interested in doing the show," Juter told Playbill On-Line (Aug. 18). "And we wouldn't be talking to Tommy unless the money was there to do it." Juter also said he still has a deposit down on the Boston theatre for November, and the Broadway dates were still in place.

Co-producer Marvin Krauss confirmed that the money was in place for a production (Aug. 18), though the budget, which started at $8 million and was later lowered to $6 million, is now $2.1 million. "Boston's off," Krauss added, "and we're trying for an Off-Broadway theatre this fall." If that mounting goes well, Krauss told Playbill On-Line, only then would Jazz Singer make the Broadway leap.

Krauss told Playbill On-Line director Barre was no longer with the project, and that discussions were indeed underway with Tune. "But everything's up for grabs right now. We're still in the process of formulating our plans." A Tune spokesperson was not yet reached at press time. Tune is also preparing a stage adaptation of Easter Parade for 1999. Over the past several weeks, producer Juter has repeatedly countered assertions that The Jazz Singer was dead, saying he was "optimistic the money would come through." On July 17, he told Playbill On-Line, "There's a lot of activity, and people are scrambling to put the money together because they think it's a great show. I will not let this show die; it's too good to die, and I'm not the only one saying that. And yes, I'm still optimistic we can have the financing in place in time for Boston."

If Boston does happen, rehearsals would begin in September, targeting a four-week tryout at the Colonial Theatre, starting Nov. 2. The Jazz Singer is still scheduled to start Broadway previews Dec. 17 and open Jan. 7, 1999, at a venue not yet chosen.

Originally capitalized at $8 million, The Jazz Singer has scaled down its budget and is now hoping to come in at a "trimmed-down" $6 million.

Sam Harris, of The Life, is set to play entertainer Al Jolson in the show, which has a score by Will Holt (Jack), augmented by tunes made famous by Jolson. Sherman Yellen penned the book. Gabriel Barre (an actor in Ain't Broadway Grand) is still the director of record, with Randy Skinner choreographing.

Many actors in the show's early workshops are still with the production, although Jean Louisa Kelly replaced Mylinda Hull as Ruby Keeler. Kelly played opposite Richard Dreyfuss in the film, Mr. Holland's Opus.

Said producer Juter weeks ago, "We plan to keep almost almost everybody we had in the workshop, assuming conflicts can be worked out. We had a dream cast in the workshop:" Sam Harris, Larry Keith (as the father), Peter Marx, who recently legally changed his name from Peter Slutsker (as Jolson's sidekick), Marcus Neville (as Georgie Jessel), Ron Wisniski (as movie producer Harry Cohn), Rudy Roberson (as Jolson's close friend, Eubie Blake), James Darrah, Will Shaw and Charlie Marcus.

Herndon Lackey played Walter Winchell in the workshop but will not be in the show. The role of Johnny Costello may or may not be played by Joseph Siravo, who was in the workshop.

Michael Gibson is doing the orchestrations; Wally Harper will arrange the dance music. Designers include Robin Wagner (set), Willa Kim (The Will Rogers Follies) (costumes) and Timothy Hunter (lighting).

The Jazz Singer (named after the very first commercially released talking film, in which Jolson starred) 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."

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Around the same time as The Jazz Singer, America will get another big-budget musical based on the life of 1920s singer 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 the competing The Jazz Singer had announced it was going into rehearsals, which also were subsequently postponed.

Jolson: The Musical, penned by Francis Essex & Rob Bettinson from an idea by Michael Freedland, now has scheduled its U.S. premiere, Oct. 6 18 at Cleveland, OH's Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square for 3-week run. (It's the first show of the newly renovated venue, which has its gala reopening Oct. 3). A 34-city national tour of the show, directed by Bruce Lum Ýlnut Street Theatre's The Goodbye Girl), follows.

Reached June 26, 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 dueling Jolsons 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.

Jolson (1886-1950), once 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.

-- By Robert Simonson
and David Lefkowitz

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