Marla Schaffel, Danny Gurwin and Stephanie Block join the already-announced Gretha Boston, André de Shields and Randy Skinner for the new musical, Let Me Sing, a view of the American personality as seen through the lens of Broadway musical history.
The New York-aimed show, subtitled "a musical evolution," begins life in a regional co-production, first at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and then Charlotte Repertory Theatre in North Carolina.
The world premiere staging plays Dec. 4-Jan. 4, 2003, at George Street in New Brunswick, NJ, and Jan. 11-Feb. 9, 2003, at Charlotte Rep, with a goal of ending up in New York City.
The Broadway-specific content would suggest the work would eventually fit snugly in a Broadway house. Rehearsals begin in New Jersey Nov. 5.
The performers play amalgam "types" from musical theatre history in the conceptual revue created by Michael Bush, Michael Aman and musical director Joel Silberman. Director and co-creator Bush, the producing artistic director of Charlotte Rep, told Playbill On-Line Schaffel (a Tony Award nominee for the Broadway musical, Jane Eyre) will take the role of Irene (as in Irene Dunne and other ingenues); Gurwin (of Broadway's The Full Monty and McCarter Theatre's The Night Governess) is George (as in Gershwin or Cohan); Block (a rising actress who has worked regionally) is Molly (as in Yiddish star Molly Picon); de Shields (The Full Monty, Ain't Misbehavin') is Bill (as in Bill Robinson or Bert Williams); Gretha Boston (a Tony winner and nominee for Show Boat and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, respectively) is Ethel (and Ethel Waters type); and Skinner (a performer who is best known for stagings and tap choreography of 42nd Street) as Buddy (the role used to be known as "Fred," as in Astaire). Skinner will also choreograph.
Let Me Sing takes theatregoers on a historical amble through the American musical theatre, 1900 43.
Bush is a onetime instructor at Brooklyn College whose musical theatre lectures explored the idea that musicals prior to Oklahoma! were concerned with the idea of "Who am I as an American?" He suggests there was a shift with Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows, which asked, "Who are we as Americans?" (Bush added the shift back to "I" came with the musicals of Stephen Sondheim.)
Under Bush's direction, a previous workshop of Let Me Sing at Manhattan Theatre Club featured Skinner (playing performers in the style of Ray Bolger, Fred Astaire and Clifton Webb), de Shields, Marc Kudisch, Beth Leavel, Boston, and Karen Ziemba.
The score of the unique work, which seems to defy definition, includes "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," "You Made Me Love You," "Look for the Silver Lining," "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and more.
The work is a mini-history of how musical theatre kept evolving, Skinner and Bush said, but avoids being academic.
"It has a lot of continuity in it, so it's not a revue," Skinner told Playbill On-Line. "Yet it's not a total book show. The six of us represent, throughout the history of the musical theatre, different famous characters at the time, and what was going on in their personal lives. There was a lot of heartache. People were singing their guts out and dancing their guts out, but behind the scenes there was a lot going on because of the Depression and the times and the politics and the black-white issue."
Bush was going to write a textbook using the thesis of musical theatre as the mirror to cultural identity, but was encouraged to explore it as a stage piece.
"My whole point is that the songs from the American musical theatre defined us as Americans to the rest of the world in a time period when the definition of Americans was cloudy," Bush said.
— By Kenneth Jones