Sam Harris Jazz Singer Might Still Sing -- And Carry a (Tommy) Tune

News   Sam Harris Jazz Singer Might Still Sing -- And Carry a (Tommy) Tune
 
Weeks ago, Broadway plans for The Jazz Singer, a musical based on the life of Al Jolson, looked to be all but dead. A major investor didn't come through with promised funds, and the producers went scrambling for other monies to make up the shortfall in time for a Boston tryout.

Weeks ago, Broadway plans for The Jazz Singer, a musical based on the life of Al Jolson, looked to be all but dead. A major investor didn't come through with promised funds, and the producers went scrambling for other monies to make up the shortfall in time for a Boston tryout.

Though no plans are confirmed yet, producer Hy Juter again confirmed (Sept. 9) the show has raised the necessary $2.1 million for an Off Broadway try-out. Though Jazz Singer had to cancel its intended, four-week Boston try-out in November, hopes are still high that Tommy Tune will sign on as new director of the Broadway-targeted musical, which stars The Life's Sam Harris.

Tune had already gotten involved with the production when contract negotiations apparently hit a snag. According to Juter, however, signs are looking increasingly positive that contract talks will be "ironed out" in a week or two, and that the show "is definitely happening." No theatre has yet been chosen, though Juter is anticipating "a 499-seater" in anticipation of a Broadway move. The mounting would have to be soon, though, since Tune is due to start work again on Easter Parade for the spring.

Co-producer Marvin Krauss, reached Sept. 9, said only that plans for The Jazz Singer were "still on hold."

Should he officially join the team, nine-time Tony winner Tune would replace the previous director, Gabriel Barre, who starred on Broadway in Starmites and Ain't Broadway Grand. Back on August 18, Jazz Singer co-producer Krauss confirmed that the money was in place for a production, though the budget, which started at $8 million and was later lowered to $6 million, is now $2.1 million. *

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."

At the time, The Jazz Singer was scheduled to start Broadway previews Dec. 17 and open Jan. 7, 1999, at a venue not yet chosen.

The show has a score by Will Holt (Jack), augmented by tunes made famous by Jolson. Sherman Yellen penned the book. Though the producers hope Tune will direct the show, he won't be the choreographer. That job remains Randy Skinner's.

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."

*

While New York waits to see if The Jazz Singer will happen, 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.

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 (eight-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."

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 commercially released talking picture, The Jazz Singer.

-- By Robert Simonson
and David Lefkowitz

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