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. Starring Rawls and singer Darlene Love, M&MJ proved so popular in its debut at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theatre — a nearly-sold-out stint that extended a week to close Dec. 16 — it's cranked right back up again, reopening Jan. 8 and scheduled to run through Jan. 27, though co-producer and Rawls' personal manager, David Brokaw, told Playbill On-Line (Jan. 10) it's likely to extend to Feb. 10. Four supporting cast members had other commitments and couldn't do the Philadelphia return engagement, but the show is otherwise the same.
As for plans beyond that, which range from a national tour to a Broadway berth this spring or upcoming fall, Brokaw said "all sorts of things are being discussed, but there's nothing I'm in a position to say at this point. We believe we have a hit show, with hit music.
"I've been with Lou Rawls 31 years, and I've never seen him have any more fun doing anything else in his career than this. He did some Las Vegas dates during the holiday break, and he came back to his own show so refreshed. It's so different for him."
The initial plan was for Me & Mrs. Jones to do a national tour and then come to Broadway, but recent scuttlebutt had been that the show may come to New York more quickly than that, perhaps following a January return to Philadelphia. There was 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 had an especially busy 2001; his play Blue was staged to some acclaim 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 is currently out on a national tour.
After Mrs. Jones leaves the Prince Theatre, following in her footsteps will be actor-singer Mandy Patinkin with his latest solo concert. For all his success in television dramedy ("Chicago Hope"), Webber-Rice (Evita) and Yiddish song (Mamaloshen), Patinkin is still most closely associated with Stephen Sondheim, stemming mainly from his performance opposite Bernadette Peters in the Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park with George.
As such, Patinkin will do a two-week concert stint of (mostly) Sondheim songs at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theatre, Feb. 12-24. (He'll also bring "Celebrating Sondheim" to the Kennedy Center in June as part of the Sondheim Festival there. A Broadway or Off-Broadway mounting is not out of the question either, according to a Sondheim spokesperson at Douger Theatricals, which manages the performer's concert tours. In fact, the Philadelphia stint, though a full concert, is seen as a kind of "work through" for the piece's future life.)
Even though he's still technically on the "Kidults" tour, Patinkin is already opening and closing his concerts with material from the Sondheim evening, as well as including other material. The Sondheim rep noted that the Sondheim concert won't repeat material from Patinkin's "Oscar and Steve" CD (which featured compositions penned, separately, by Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein II). It will, however, feature songs from Sunday in the Park and Follies.
Remaining tour dates before the Philly and DC gigs include:
Jan. 28: Weidner Center, Green Bay, WI
Jan. 30: Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa, FL
Jan. 14-20: Colonial Theater, Boston, MA
Feb. 1: Florida Theater, Jacksonville, FL
Feb. 3: Mann Performing Arts Center, Fort Meyers, FL
Feb. 5: Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, Sarasota, FL
Feb. 9-10: Lyric Opera House, Baltimore, MD
A three-time Tony nominee, Patinkin has starred in the musicals The Wild Party, Sunday in the Park With George, The Secret Garden and Falsettos. He won his Best Featured Actor (Musical) Tony playing Che in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita, in 1980. Prior to Party, his most recent Broadway appearance was in his concert of Yiddish songs titled Mamaloshen (the CD shares that title). He is also known for TV's "Chicago Hope" and the film comedy, "The Princess Bride" and Barbra Streisand's "Yentl."
On the heels of Mandy comes the "Pick of the Prince," and it's Myths and Hymns, a song cycle by Adam Guettel that played Off-Broadway as "Saturn Returns." The songs in Myths and Hymns, running April 27 May 19, are based around ancient myths and text from a book of American Presbyterian hymns. Hymns was performed in March of 1998 at the Public Theatre.
The recording of Guettel's song cycle was released on Nonesuch Records in March 1999. Along with the composer himself, several cast members of the Off-Broadway production as well as Broadway voices like Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin lent themselves to the CD.
Pieces on the 16 track CD include:
"Children of the Heavenly King" -- Theresa McCarthy
"At the Sounding" -- Vivian Cherry, Darius de Haas, Jose Llana, Theresa McCarthy
"Saturn Returns" -- Adam Guettel
"Migratory V" -- Theresa McCarthy
"Pegasus" -- Billy Porter, Lynette Du Pre, Audra McDonald
"Link" -- Vivian Cherry, Darius de Haas, Annie Golden, Jose Llana, Theresa McCarthy, Bob Stillman
"Hero and Leander" -- Adam Guettel
"Sisyphus" -- Mandy Patinkin
"Come to Jesus" -- Theresa McCarthy, Adam Guettel
"How Can I Lose You?" -- Annie Golden
"There's a Shout" -- Vivian Cherry
"Awaiting You" -- Billy Porter
"The Great Highway" -- Theresa McCarthy, Darius de Haas
"There's a Land" -- Adam Guettel
"Saturn Returns (Reprise) -- Adam Guettel Guettel is best known for composing the acclaimed Floyd Collins and for being the son of Mary Rodgers and grandson of Richard Rodgers.
Closing the Prince season, June 15-30, is a co-production with MA's American Repertory Theatre, a highly-anticipated musical version of Lysistrata starring Tony winner Cherry Jones. The piece, adapted by Larry Gelbart, will boast music by Disney house composer Alan Menken and lyricist Arnold Weinstein. Opera man William Bolcom was originally announced as the project's tunesmith, but he had to drop out due to other commitments.
The tuner runs in Cambridge May 10 to June 9 and is directed by Andrei Serban, whose recent credits have ranged from acclaimed collaborations with Elizabeth Swados to a roundly-savaged avant-garde Hamlet. In November 2001, he staged Richard III at OOB's La MaMa.
On Broadway, actress Jones, as Shaw's Major Barbara, recently tried and failed to lead her war-mongering stage father to salvation. She may have better luck as the title character in Lysistrata, where she will order a sex strike among the females of ancient Greece in order to get the warring men to arrange a peace. No other cast members have been named. Jones other credits include Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet; The Baltimore Waltz, Night of the Iguana, A Moon for the Misbegotten and her Tony-winning, star-making turn in The Heiress
Menken is the author of such musicals as Little Shop of Horrors and Beauty and the Beast. For Disney, he has scored the films "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and more.
Gelbart is the man behind such shows as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, City of Angels and Mastergate, as well as the film "Tootsie" and the television series "M*A*S*H."
- By David Lefkowitz
Robert Simonson & Christine Ehren