By Robert Simonson
16 Jul 2013
Both Bubbling Brown Sugar and a 1977 all-black revival of Guys and Dolls were nominated for Tony Awards—the latter for the unwieldy honor of "Most Innovative Production of a Revival."
Mr. Springer made a specialty of producing plays and musicals by black artists that appealed to both black and white audiences. He himself was African-American, making him a rarity in his profession during that era of Broadway.
Sugar original opened at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on Feb. 15, 1975, and ran a mere 12 performances. Set in a Harlem nightclub, it featured the music of African-American musical greats like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn and other artists who were popular during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. Original music, including the title theme song "Bubbling Brown Sugar," was composed by pianist Emme Kemp, a protégé of the legendary Eubie Blake. On March 2, 1976, it moved to the ANTA Theatre for a nearly two-year stay.
Also nominated for Tonys were choreographer Billy Wilson and actress Vivian Reed. Reed won a Drama Desk Award for her performance. In 1977, the revue played London.
Mr. Springer returned to the music of Eubie Blake when he produced the 1978 revue Eubie!, which celebrated the music of the ragtime and jazz composer-lyricist-performer, who at that time had been largely forgotten.
The late 1970s were a feverishly busy time for Ashton Springer. In between those two revue hits came productions of Guys and Dolls, the musical Going Up, the comedy Unexpected Guests, and the Ronald Ribman play Cold Storage, which ran half a year. He produced three more Broadway outings after Eubie!: Whoopee!, Athol Fugard's A Lesson From Aloes and Inacent Black.
He also produced Off-Broadway, staging Rollin' on the TBA and general managing a 2000 revival of for colored girls….
Ashton Springer was born in New York City on Nov. 1, 1930, and went to high school in The Bronx. He attended Ohio State University. He began his career as a musician, performing as one of the Four Aces.
He entered the theatre through a peculiar side door: He ran a coin-operated laundry in Queens owned by playwright L. Richard Nash. "He wanted a side income," Mr. Springer told The New York Times in 1978. "I had a room in his office, so quite naturally I would look around. A lot of famous people would come by."
Mr. Springer's first producing gig was a Broadway revival of Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody. Producer Joe Papp, who staged the play first, gave him not only the rights but the sets. It was mounted first at the Promenade Theatre. The reaction to the production led Mr. Springer to believe that black audiences were an untapped source of business. A national tour of the production confirmed that suspicion.
He is survived by his sons Caz and Mark Springer, and his sister Claudia Holston.