It had to seem like a match made in heaven — as far as musical theatre goes.
The creative minds at Encores! City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center (two of New York City's finest live arts organizations) collaborating to bring a show to the stage every two years was a stroke of genius. Their inaugural endeavor was 2011's Cotton Club Parade, a musical revue paying homage to the stylings of jazz legends like Duke Ellington juxtaposed with the poetry of laureate Langston Hughes and the famed Harlem hotspot as the backdrop, circa 1930s.
With nine-time Grammy Award winner Wynton Marsalis helming the band and Drama Desk Award nominee Warren Carlyle (A Christmas Story The Musical) choreographing and directing, Cotton Club Parade was a show not to be missed. Six sold-out performances during its limited run led the producers to order seven more for the 2012 season. And those were a smash.
Fast forward to less than a year later and the bones of those earlier productions are given new life on Broadway, starting with a new title — After Midnight — and some other special elements. "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino has been cast to bring her vocal magic back to The Great White Way. (The Grammy Award-winning chart-topper made her Broadway debut as Celie in The Color Purple in 2007.) Additionally, acclaimed fashion designer Isabel Toledo has been tapped to recreate the panache and pageantry of the era as the show's costume designer. (The Cuban-born fashionista gained fame for crafting looks for First Lady Michelle Obama.)
"This is really an inspired show that is going to combine old school with new school," producer Scott Sanders revealed. "It's going to have all the sexy elements from great 1930s Harlem clubs put through the prism of 2013 and modern sensibilities of certain artists, certain dancers, certain performers and certain vocalists." One vocalist in particular is Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox, who has been with the past and present iterations of After Midnight and is elated to return to Broadway. (Though the Memphis native hasn't been on the boards since 2009 — with a short stint in Chicago — she's amassed a steady film career with roles in "The Blind Side," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" and "Love Is Strange," which is currently shooting in New York.)
"It feels great, especially in a show that's so fantastic," she attested. Lenox was on the ground floor of Cotton Club Parade after she and Carlyle bonded during Randy Newman's Harps & Angels at the Mark Taper Forum. "Warren couldn't be nicer. He's very respectful and creative and willing to say, 'Let's work and let's do what's best for not only the show, but what's going to make you look good too.'"
Lenox plays a gutsy, loose-lipped, loud-mouthed broad known as Blues Woman, and she looked to a late blues and entertainment legend for inspiration. "I wasn't all that familiar with Ethel Waters, but the song 'Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night' really gave me the opportunity to do some further research on her and she had such an impressive career. She was absolutely fabulous."
Trusting Lenox's instincts and nuances, the creative team allowed her to choose another tune for her role. Why not? After all, she was in another musical revue; the legendary Ain't Misbehavin. "I found 'Women Be Wise' … They had originally approached me with 'Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,' and then they said, 'Let's find at least one other song, Adriane.' So I just went online looking for songs from that time period and I ran across Sippie Wallace's 'Women Be Wise.' I said, 'Now, this is the song. It's funny and it's good.' So that's how it got in the show."
Sanders, who seems to have a penchant for producing epic musicals from days of yore (Evita, The Color Purple) is staunch in declaring the relevancy of After Midnight among today's theatregoers. "Obviously we do not want to and never did want to say that we're taking audiences back to the 1930s or taking them back to some museum piece of The Cotton Club … this is one hot night on Broadway experience that we want audiences to have."
Also new to the show is Dule Hill. Known mostly for his TV acting career ("The West Wing," "Psych"), he was last on The Great White Way in the Alicia Keys-produced 2011 play Stick Fly. As The Host in After Midnight, he serves as the narrator of the revue, even bringing his fancy footwork back to life. (Hill got his start on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid and starred in Bring In 'da Noize, Bring In 'da Funk.) His spoken words in the show are derived from Langston Hughes' writings.
The new take on the show also prides itself with really building out what was known as "Celebrity Sundays" (a night branded for when boldfaced names of the day would specifically come to The Cotton Club and perform a few numbers, sometimes impromptu.)
"I was surprised actually that they weren't all African American, they were all kinds of different folks from the entertainment and music business," Sanders explained. "Judy Garland would be there one night. Ella Fitzgerald on another. Lena Horne and Fanny Bryce too. So that kind of 'Special Guest Star' piqued my interests and I said, 'Why don't we build that up and really make that into a rotating headliner role that great vocalists from all over the world can come in and perform some of these great songs?'"
That's the guest track Barrino is contracted for though early February. Sanders, who's worked with everyone from Diana Ross and Ricky Martin to Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, was tightlipped about who was on the wish list to join the show when the slot opens, but the celebrity casting possibilities seem endless.
"The show is non-stop, top-to-bottom, blow your socks off, top-notch talent after top-notch talent," he promised. "And with this incredible music score behind it and these great songs that everybody [is] going to know behind it, it's really fun."