Back in May 1996, Playbill On-Line reported on speculations that two Al Jolson-based musicals were being primed for Broadway. Jolson: The Musical, an award-winning hit in London and Toronto, was supposed to cross the border but never quite made it over.
Meanwhile, an American version of the story, The Jazz Singer (named after the very first commercially released talkie, in which Jolson starred), was busy announcing rehearsal plans. The American show has a book by Sherman Yellen and additional music (augmenting famous Jolson tunes) by Will Holt.
Now The Jazz Singer is, indeed, tuning its pipes for a Broadway run, with former The Life star Sam Harris starring as Jolson. Equity ensemble auditions were held for a workshop of the show, with rehearsals starting Jan. 19, and a rehearsal/performance period in downtown Manhattan that ran to Feb. 28. Broadway rehearsals then begin Aug. 4, with a five-week stop at Boston's Colonial Theatre, previewing Nov. 2 for an opening Nov. 7. Producer Hy Juter told Playbill On-Line (March 11) that the show is targeting pre-Christmas Broadway previews and an opening Jan. 7, 1999.
Said Juter, "We had a week of workshops last week, which were extremely, unbelievably successful. If there's such a thing as 100 percent positive feedback -- we had it!" Juter also noted that the 94-year-old widow of Samson Raphaelson, who wrote the play, The Jazz Singer in 1925, came down to see the workshop with her son. "She put her arms around me and cried and said she loved it. That meant a lot me," Juter said.
"All the theatre owners came to the workshop and indicated they loved it," continued the South African-born producer. "My partner, Marvin Krauss [who also serves as general manager], is talking to them about what theatres might be available. This is Juter's first Broadway-bound production, though he's been with the project since its inception. "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 Slutsker (as Jolson's sidekick), Mylinda Hull (as Ruby Keeler), Herndon Lackey (as Walter Winchell), Marcus Neville (as Georgie Jessel), Ron Wisniski (as movie producer Harry Cohn), Rudy Roberson (as Jolson's close friend, Eubie Blake), Joseph Siravo (as gangster Johnny Costello), James Darrah, Will Shaw and Charlie Marcus.
Harris auditioned three times for the part of Jolson and, Juter says, "he blew us away." Like the Tony-nominted Harris, Roberson was also in The Life. Hull played Lola opposite Jerry Lewis in the Damn Yankees national tour. Keith has been playing Strauss in Broadway's Titanic.
Al Jolson was a blackface comedian who became popular for his soulful renditions of "Mammy," "Swanee" and other songs. Offstage, he was married to dancer Ruby Keeler. According to producer Juter, the show "takes a realistic look at of Jolson's life and times, his marriage to Ruby Keeler, his relationship to his father, and most of all, his relationship with his audience."
Songs in the show include the Jolson standards "Swanee," "April Showers," "California Here I Come," "Give My Regards To Broadway," "Sonny Boy," "Mammy," "Rockaby Your Baby," and Gershwin's "Liza."
Jazz Singer will also have original songs by composer Holt, such as "Minstrel Man," "Bottoms Up," "Look Who Loves Me" (sung by Ruby Keeler), "Dancing After The Ball Is Over," "Sez Who," "Tap Away," "Nobody Walks Out On Jolie" and "Downtown Days." The workshop's program also lists the Yom Kippur cantorial "Kol Nidre," sung at Jolson's hospital bedside.
Juter told Playbill On-Line he's currently meeting with producers of a major label to discuss the show's original cast recording.
Designing The Jazz Singer will be Robin Wagner (sets) -- (Tony Walton had been previously mentioned), Willa Kim (costumes) and Tony Meola (sound). Kim is best known for her work on The Will Rogers Follies. Wagner is currently represented on Broadway by The Life.
Directing the show is Gabriel Barre, a Goodspeed Opera House veteran (Houdini) and Broadway performer. Both Barre and choreographer Randy Skinner worked on the Broadway musical, Ain't Broadway Grand?. Wally Harper will do the dance arrangements for The Jazz Singer, which is being cast by Stuart Howard Associates and represented by the Alma Viator office.