STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Smokey Is Still Smoking

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Smokey Is Still Smoking Putrid.

Putrid.

That's what I called Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller when it opened in 1995.

I soon received a letter from Richard Frankel, the show's producer and general manager.

"'Putrid'?" he asked. "It smells and repulses? Like what? Like a rotting animal, or bodies in a ditch? It's an entertainment, worked on for two years by people who spend their lives in rehearsal halls and theaters trying to get this whole thing right.

"I have read your reviews over the years with interest and have never had any reason to regard you as anything other than a professional writer who dignifies his subject. This was really out of line." I immediately wrote back, and railed that a producer of such quality -- Frankel had presented such blue-chip titles as Driving Miss Daisy, Frankie and Johnny, The Cocktail Hour, Marvin's Room, Jeffrey, Stomp, and Angels in America -- shouldn't produce something as artistically inferior as this revue. "In your future Playbill bios," I brashly predicted, "you won't even mention that you did Smokey Joe's Cafe."

Oh, yeah? Well, here it is, 1,000 performances later, still rolling along merrily.

For a while after the March 1995 opening, I appeared to be right. Though the reviews weren't putrid, they weren't money notices. When the Times calls you "a strangely homogenized tribute to one of popular music's most protean songwriting teams," people don't say, "Wow! I'd better call Telecharge now!"

"And we'd spent all our money," said Frankel last week when I called him to wave the white flag. "Four million. Even a little more."

Then Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters that owns the Virginia where Smokey Joe's was shakily ensconced, took a meeting with the producers. Recalled Frankel, "He said, 'I know the reviews are mediocre, but I believe in the show, and my checkbook is on the table.' Then he left the room."

Frankel and his partners were astonished. For a moment. Then they were off and calculating.

"We figured we needed a million-two from him, to do ads, cover losses. That's what we borrowed -- $1.2 million. And we paid it back by September."

How? Because of that wonderful two-hour infomercial that's broadcast annually on the first Sunday in June (also known as the Tony Awards). No, Smokey Joe's didn't win -- though it's surpassed the run of the victorious Sunset Boulevard. But as soon as the Tonys opened with some wonderful shots of the energetic ensemble, Smokey Joe's became the show the public wanted to see.

Though Smokey Joe's was somewhat smoked out of the 1994-95 Tony broadcast. "Each show was entitled to 2.5 minutes," recalled Frankel, "so we decided to split it up. First we'd provide the opening number, and then we'd come back later with another song."

At least that was the plan. "But when the show was on, they saw they were running over, and even though our cast was standing in the wings waiting to go on, they cut us. We were told they had to, because CBS was going to end the show at 11 no matter what.

"To put it mildly, I was very upset. It was unfair of them to go back on their agreement with us."

They didn't need the extra number. The next day, the huge jump in business occurred. "Within weeks, we felt we would repay our loan -- and recoup. By the end of that first summer, we knew we were a hit. By the end of last summer, 15 months after we opened, everyone got back paid every cent of the $5.5 million." That's a fabulous return for a '90s musical.

Now there are three branches of Smokey Joe's Cafe. Said Frankel, "In addition to Broadway -- which still has five of the original seven cast members in it, including Tony nominees B.J. Crosby and Brenda Braxton -- we have a road company that's finishing its first year, and is booked through April, when we plan to take it to Japan and the Far East. Then we also have a company in London at the Prince of Wales that's doing decently."

The road to success was seemingly longer than the street known as Broadway. It all started with the Viertel Brothers, Jack and Tom. "Jack's the creative director at Jujamcyn, and Tom, along with Steven Baruch, is my producing partner. Jack has been talking to Leiber and Stoller for years about doing a show. When he and Tom heard that a Seattle theater was doing a revue of their songs, they went out to see it. They didn't like the approach, but the night confirmed for them there was a show there.

"Look," he admitted, "even when I started thinking about it, I thought the whole things was going to be the songs the Coasters (the group that did "Yakety-Yak" and "Charlie Brown"). It wasn't until I saw Leiber and Stoller's full catalogue that I got excited. These guys," he said with astonishment. "One had been a delivery boy for his parents, who had a store in a black neighborhood. By making deliveries to various apartments, he heard black music and got really obsessed by it. When they wrote 'Hound Dog,' they were 19 years old. I've seen a copy of one of their first contracts, and it was countersigned by their mothers."

Who knew it would lead to a Broadway show? "We started some years ago with a workshop in New York under the direction of an Australian named Stephen Helper. By the time we did a full production at the Royal George in Chicago -- where it was called Baby, That's Rock 'n' Roll -- Otis Sallid was directing. Gordon Davidson (artistic director and producer of the Centre Theatre Group in Los Angeles) saw the show in its early stages, was a big booster, and said, 'I think this is going to be terrific. Count me in.' So we went to his Doolittle Theatre."

Where they'd do more than a little. "That's when (director) Jerry Zaks and (choreographer) Joey McKneely came in," recalled Frankel. "You see, Jerry doesn't like to get involved with the early development of shows. He wants a script. So when Leiber and Stoller said, 'Here's our catalogue,' Jerry just thought it was going to be too hard. Once he saw it on its feet in Chicago, he came interested and had ideas."

Good ones, Frankel insisted. "He really did it artfully. Songs that might not have worked do because of where he positioned them. He never went for cheap or easy laughs. He has restraint. All of those things contributed to make it more than the sum of its parts."

Though Frankel greatly admires those parts. "If the show were only novelty songs like 'Yakety-Yak' or 'Charlie Brown,' I don't think it would have had such appeal. The Drifters' songs are markedly different, as are Peggy Lee's hits, and country-and-western songs, too. Add in 'Spanish Harlem,' and you've got a pretty wide range for a Broadway show."

Frankel has one other theory as to why Smokey Joe's is still smoking. "You get interested in the performers They do group numbers, then solos, and by the end of the evening, you feel as if you've gotten to know them."

You -- and I -- can't argue with success. Smokey Joe's continues to make money the old-fashioned way: earning it. "The only thing that really counts is word-of-mouth," said Frankel. "Between winter sales and direct mail, we've made profitable grosses. Broadway is mostly a tourist business now, and we're no different. Between the foreign and North American visitors, we're 60-70 percent tourists, and much of the rest come from New York City suburbs."

He's not complaining. "People recommend Smokey Joe's genuinely and enthusiastically. It obviously does something to them -- just like Cats, which a lot of people sneer at. I hate that. Shows like this speak to people and get them to respond. We'd like to be here as long as the Statue of Liberty."

Don't expect me to contradict that. One putrid mistake is all I care to make with Smokey Joe's Cafe.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com