Producer Eric Krebs told Variety he plans to open the Langston Hughes inspired, Harlem-set musical, Little Ham, at his Off-Broadway John Houseman Theatre Sept. 12.
Krebs has shepherded the project since 1985, and 2002 seems to be the time to give it a commercial nest, following refinements made in a late 2001 Off-Off-Broadway staging that Krebs extended for a brief Off Broadway stay that earned the show encouraging reviews.
This most recent incarnation of the Dan Owens-Judd Woldin- Richard Engquist musical began in an Off-Off-Broadway arrangement by Amas Musical Theatre Nov. 14, 2001, at the 99-seat Hudson Guild Theatre. It closed Jan. 6. Krebs initiated the project way back in 1985 and took it through various drafts (including a 1987 staging at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey).
Billed as a "jazzical" in December, the show won a favorable, constructive review from The New York Times. "I don't think any of us believe Little Ham is finished," Krebs told Playbill On-Line in January. "In a very constructive way, several of the critics saw the show for what it can become, which I thought was a very constructive kind of reviewing."
On Jan. 4, Krebs said, "We are in discussions with [Broadway producers] and out of town not-for-profit theatres," but did not rule out an Off Broadway roost. The 14-actor company (with a band of five musicians) has a commercial Broadway capitalization of $3.5 million, Krebs said, which is extremely modest compared to the mega musicals that saturate the market. Variety reported that the Off Broadway capitalization is $900,000 and that the 2001 company would be offered roles, but some of the Ham folk may have other jobs lined up. Eric Riley will again direct.
The current tenant of the Houseman Theatre on West 42nd Street is Puppetry of the Penis.
The musical is by Dan Owens (librettist), Judd Woldin (music and lyrics) and Richard Engquist (lyrics). Krebs (Broadway's It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Electra) told Playbill On Line Dec. 3, 2001, the Depression-set musical based on the Hughes play of the same name (about the white mob putting pressure on the Harlem numbers racket) is filled with pungent characters typical of the folk who populated works by Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other Harlem Renaissance writers. Krebs got the rights to the work from the Hughes estate in 1985. Some say the show has a Guys and Dolls feel to it. During a brief shutdown of the production (Dec. 10-13, after which the show switched to an Off-Broadway contract), a new dance number was added and some material was reshaped.
"It's fun and funny and warm and beautifully inspired by Langston's characters," Krebs said. "What first attracted me was not the story, which is substantially new by the book writer, Dan Owens. But the characters and language — the warmth, the spirit and energy of the community as Hughes wrote it."
Titled Langston Hughes's Little Ham, and billed as "a Harlem Jazzical," the musical has a book by Owens, music by Woldin (who composed Raisin) and lyrics by Richard Engquist (Kuni Leml, Abie's Island Rose) and Woldin.
Set in the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the work focuses on the uptown "numbers" games — betting on horses — that allow locals to dream about a better life, and how the games are threatened by a downtown mob. The white mob coerces smooth and witty Harlemite Little Ham into helping them control the games, and squeezing protection money from local businesses. But when he's assigned to rattle Tiny Lee's Beauty Shop, he's stuck between double crossing the mob or the woman he loves, Miss Tiny Lee herself. Krebs calls it a musical comedy fable — the sort of show with tap-dancing gangsters.
Musical direction was by David Alan Bunn, choreography by Leslie Dockery, arrangements and orchestrations by the legendary Luther Henderson. The 2001 cast included Adrian Bailey, Ben Blake, D'Ambrose Boyd, Venida Evans, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Jerry Gallagher, Andre Garner, Danielle Greaves, Julia Lema, Stacey Sargeant, Joy Styles, Lee Summers, Richard Vida and Joe Wilson, Jr.
Designers are Edward T. Gianfrancesco (set), Bernard Grenier (costume) and Richard Latta (lighting).
Arranger-orchestrator Henderson has worked on more than two dozen Broadway productions in various capacities. For Ain't Misbehavin' he was the original pianist as well as orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor. For Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, he was the musical consultant and arranged several selections. Henderson orchestrated and co-composed Jelly's Last Jam. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1997 for orchestrating Play On!
— By Kenneth Jones