When singer Lou Rawls guest-appeared in Broadway's Smokey Joe's Cafe back in spring 1999, he saw that a "revuesical" of pop hits could find a willing and nostalgic audience. As such, he started thinking about taking a similar approach to music closer to his own style.
The result is Me & Mrs. Jones, a soul-based musical built around the songs of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. M&MJ, starring Rawls and singer Darlene Love, is currently finishing its world premiere at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theatre, a debut that nearly sold out its initial run, then extended a week (to Dec. 16). According to co-producer David Brokaw, the final week has also sold out, with the show routinely receiving standing ovations.
The initial plan was for Me & Mrs. Jones to do a national tour and then come to Broadway, but recent scuttlebutt is that the show may come to New York more quickly than that, perhaps following a January return to Philadelphia. There's no official word on plans yet, either from the producers or from the Prince, which has the month of January open but is bringing in Mandy Patinkin's new concert, devoted to Stephen Sondheim songs, in February.
Rawls stars and co-produces with Brokaw, his personal manager, and with Murray Schwartz (former CEO of Merv Griffin Enterprises). According to Brokaw, the production team, Philadelphia Sound Company, acquired the theatrical rights to Gamble & Huff songs from Warner/Chappel Music.
Apart from the title tune, Gamble & Huff penned such R&B chart-makers as "Love Train," "When Will I See You Again," "Never Going to Give You Up," "If You Don't Know Me by Now," "Lady Love" and the Rawls standard, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine." *
Brokaw told Playbill On-Line Nov. 13 that a reading of the musical was held in New York Nov. 2, with Rawls performing alongside ten other dancer-singers. “[Director] Charles Randolph-Wright delivered a tremendous first run,” Brokaw said. “And we’ve scheduled another working session for December. We’ve got something tremendous here.”
In a statement when the project was first announced, Rawls said Gamble came to see him in Smokey Joe and gave his blessing to the project. "Given the success of Smokey Joe's Cafe, Fame and Mamma Mia!," said Rawls, "...there is clearly a demand for this type of hit musical."
Closer to Fame and the ABBA musical than the Leiber & Stoller tuner, Mr. & Mrs. Jones has something of a plot. A press release from co-producer Brokaw noted that, like the song, the musical Me & Mrs. Jones is based on the true story of a romance between a woman and a judge, the latter to be played by Rawls.
Asked why the show would have a storyline rather than just be organized as a revue, co-producer Brokaw told Playbill On-Line Aug. 15, "The feeling is that now, suddenly, there's a real demand and passion for taking the extraordinary catalogues of, say, Abba or Fame or Barry Manilow — of taking great songs and putting them in this format. As the idea evolved for us, we felt the next step was to give the audience a storyline. It gives extra texture and adds dimension. Lou [Rawls] had the initial idea for the show, and then it was Murray [Schwartz], when listing all these huge hits, who said, `Gee, I think you really need a bit of a story to make this more appealing.' Any producer would want to have the incredible run Smokey Joe has had. I humbly suggest and wonder whether that show would have prospered even more had it had a storyline."
Brokaw added Nov. 13 that the songs Gamble and Huff wrote in the 1960s and 70s “were written in the midst of a social revolution, racial revolution, sexual revolution — lots of unrest and turmoil of people trying to change society. These stories really address the whole idea of people understanding one another and expressing love and appreciation towards other people. That comes out in the lyrics. Charles [Randolph-Wright] did a great job of going with those stories, so it’s now more than just a romance of the judge and Mrs. Jones; it’s six stories that interweave. e’re Wvery excited about we’ve been able to do here.”
"Our first priority is mounting a successful production, getting it up and running and getting an audience,” Brokaw said in August. “We need to build our audience base and then think about Broadway.” For now, the project is being thought of a touring show with Broadway aspirations, rather than the other way around.
Asked whether the Gamble/Huff catalogue might have a more limited and/or black-specific appeal than Leiber/Stoller's, and therefore might be marketed as such, Brokaw said, "We're doing a full-scale musical theatre piece, specifically geared towards Broadway-type theatres. These songs appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. Although the music comes from an R&B and soul background, everybody relates to `Me and Mrs. Jones' and has context for identification with it. The fact that the songs happen to have been written by black men doing so-called R&B and soul music is just another special dimension. Just as the Motown sound has been embraced, the sound of Philadelphia has been embraced worldwide."
The "Philadelphia Sound" was essentially a mellower, slicker, 1970s extension of Motown R&B. Performers of the era included the O'Jays ("Back Stabbers," "For the Love of Money"), Patti LaBelle, Melvin and the Bluenotes ("If You Don't Know Me By Now"), Teddy Pendergrass and The Spinners ("I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love").
Director Randolph-Wright will be having an especially busy year; his play Blue will be staged in June by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Gramercy Theatre, with Phylicia Rashad starring. An associate artist at Arena Stage. Randolph-Wright was an original cast member of Broadway's Dreamgirls and recently directed Guys and Dolls at Arena Stage, which will go out on national tour in 2001.
-- By David Lefkowitz