While New York waits to see if The Jazz Singer will come together financially, 34 other cities will get another big-budget musical based on the life of 1920s singer Al Jolson. Jolson: The Musical, an award-winning hit in London, will start its national tour, Oct. 6, at Cleveland, OH's newly-renovated Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square.
As reported by the NY Post (Aug. 20), Mike Burstyn (Ain't Broadway Grand, Off-Broadway's The Rothschilds) will star in the musical, putting to rest speculation that London lead Brian Conley would cross the Atlantic. Production spokesperson Phil Thurston (of Cromarty & Co.) told Playbill On-Line (Aug. 20) further casting has yet to be announced for this "pre-Broadway tour."
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 & Rob Bettinson from an idea by Michael Freedland, will play for three weeks in Cleveland. (The OH venue has its gala reopening, Oct. 3, three days before Jolson's first preview). According to spokesperson Thurston, cities after Cleveland include (tentatively, and not necessarily in order) Denver, Boston, Detroit, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Palm Desert, Richmond, Milwaukee, Seattle, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Atlanta, Vancouver, Montreal. Bill Castellino (8 time dramalogue winner) 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 will 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," Swanee," "Rockabye Your Baby" and "Give My Regards To Broadway." Will one Jolson show 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." Also a down-sized Jazz Singer may try out Off-Broadway before taking its chance Off Broadway.
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.
As for The Jazz Singer, no plans are remotely confirmed yet, but 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 yet not 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."