Remember The Jazz Singer? The Broadway-bound musical about the life of Al Jolson that was to star Sam Harris and be a major musical contender this season?
Well, months of fundraising, stalling, reconfiguring and downsizing only served to make the show's appearance less and less likely. By late 1998, The Jazz Singer was essentially a dead issue. But is there a new beginning?
Actor Harris wrote to Playbill On-Line (May 19) to say the show had a couple of "successful readings" in April, though it's likely little will happen over the summer.
Earlier, Harris told PBOL that as of April 1, rights to the show reverted back to the authors, Sherman Yellen (book) and Will Holt (music & lyrics). They're still working on the show, alongside Harris and choreographer Randy Skinner. New on board is Christopher Ashley, a director most closely associated with Paul Rudnick (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told). According to Harris, the creative team are setting up a series of backers' readings "with the intention of re-establishing the great interest that followed last February's workshop."
"I was greatly disappointed that the show did not open as planned this season," Harris wrote. "I think we'd have done quite well. But I truly believe this is a real case of things working out the way they're supposed to. The pre-existing situation simply proved impossibly unproductive -- though with the best of intentions -- and it simply could not have come off. I am very excited about getting the show going after six months of inactivity. While it has been difficult, we all know this is not unlike the history of most shows that reach Broadway. It takes time, tenacity, the right group of people and a lot of money! I can't wait to get going on it." *
By September 1998, producers Hy Juter and Marvin A. Krauss had apparently raised $2.1 million, enough to bring to bring the musical to a 499-seat Off-Broadway house as a kind of pre-Broadway test. However, the show then lost a major investor.
Juter continued to seek investors and even held out the carrot of Tommy Tune's possible involvement as director, but eventually everything was put on indefinite hold. Back on Aug. 18, 1998, Jazz Singer co-producer Krauss confirmed that the production's budget, which started at $8 million and was later lowered to $6 million, bottomed out at $2.1 million.
Originally, The Jazz Singer was scheduled to start Broadway previews Dec. 17 and open Jan. 7, 1999. The show has a score by Holt (Jack ), augmented by tunes made famous by Jolson. Yellen penned the book.
Actors in the show's early workshops included Mylinda Hull (later replaced by Jean Louisa Kelly) as Ruby Keeler, Sam Harris, Larry Keith (as the father), Peter Marx, who 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, Herndon Lackey, Will Shaw and Charlie Marcus.
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 are 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 are various songs the singer made famous, such as "Swanee," "April Showers," "Baby Face," and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! Goodbye."
While New York waited to see if The Jazz Singer would happen, 34 other cities are seeing another big-budget musical based on the life of 1920s singer Al Jolson. Jolson: The Musical, an award-winning hit in London, started its national tour, Oct. 6, at Cleveland, OH's newly renovated Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square.
Mike Burstyn (Ain't Broadway Grand, Off-Broadway's The Rothschilds) stars in the musical, putting to rest speculation that London lead Brian Conley would cross the Atlantic. Helen A. Holliday, Harry A. Winter, Donna Lynne Champlin (as Ruby Keeler), Kenny Morris and Jeff Richards join Burstyn in the panoramic show-business story.
Originally, Jolson had intended to 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, and both were subsequently postponed. No time frame has been decided for Jolson's Broadway plans.
Jolson -- The Musical, penned by Francis Essex and Rob Bettinson from an idea by Michael Freedland, is expected to play additional dates in 1999, so cities previously announced as possibilities -- Denver, Palm Desert, CA., Richmond, VA., Milwaukee, Seattle, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Atlanta and Vancouver, Montreal -- may yet be represented.
Bill Castellino directs Jolson, while Joey McKneely (Smokey Joe's Cafe ) choreographs. Designing Jolson -- The Musical are James Fouchard (set), Bruce Harrow (costumes), and John McLaine (lighting).
Songs in the show include such Jolson standards "Let Me Sing," "I'm Happy," "I'm Sitting On Top of the World," "Blue Skies," "April Showers," "Baby Face," "Carolina in the Morning," "Sunny Boy," "Rockabye Your Baby" and "Give My Regards To Broadway."
Finally, neither The Jazz Singer nor Jolson -- The Musical are connected to yet another project, Jolson Sings Again a drama by Arthur Laurents that has almost nothing to do with the entertainer. Instead, the biographical piece looks at Larry Parks (who played Jolson in the movies) and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the McCarthy era. Well-received at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in its late winter 1999 run, the show is eyeing a New York (and possibly Broadway) run.