Laurents' non-musical drama, examining Hollywood during the McCarthy Era, received its East Coast premiere at George Street Feb. 27-March 28. In Jolson Sings Again, an idealistic playwright, in L.A. working on his first screenplay, gets caught up in that tumultuous period in history, when actor Larry Parks (who played Al Jolson onscreen) becomes the first star witness to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A small group of friends -- including a film director, a gay writer, and a Jewish couple -- struggle over whether to appear before the Committee, and soon see their dreams and values destroyed.
[Editor's Note: Jolson Sings Again is not to be confused with a recent cavalcade of shows about Al Jolson: the touring Jolson, York Theatre's Jolson & Co. revue, The Jazz Singer at Jewish Rep, and the seemingly-aborted Jolson musical biography also titled The Jazz Singer.]
David Saint, who staged Jolson Sings Again at George Street, will again direct, though casting has yet to be announced. A spokesperson close to the production confirmed that producers have been "having conversations" with Patti LuPone (Evita) to star.
An accomplished director, playwright, librettist, and screenwriter, Laurents is best known for penning the books to the musicals Gypsy and West Side Story. The recipient of two Tony Awards, he has been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. A current revival of his Home of the Brave at Jewish Repertory Theatre has received good-to-excellent reviews.
At George Street, Jolson featured Armand Schultz, Robert Petkoff, Betsy Aidem and Jonathan Hadary, who was nominated for a Tony for his role opposite Tyne Daly in the Broadway revival of Gypsy.
Laurents wrote Jolson Sings Again in 1992 and first tried it out at Seattle Rep in 1995. "It was an unfortunate production," Laurents told NJ writer and critic Simon Saltzman. "Only a month before rehearsals were to begin, the producers suddenly pulled out. And so did the stars." The play was hastily recast (and, to Laurents' mind, miscast).
NJ director Saint didn't see the Seattle Jolson but became the director of choice while directing another Laurents play, My Good Name at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this past summer. That show was first workshopped at Seattle Rep, where four George Street staffers saw it. They watched it again at Bay Street, this time under Saint's direction. Laurents recalls, "`What a great re-write you did on the play,' they said. "I hadn't touched it, yet it was a totally different play. [Saint] gave the play what it needed. Now I sit though rehearsals of Jolson Sings Again and am also amazed. David's direction and the cast are responsible for the enormous difference. It's so different and so much more of what I wanted than the production in Seattle. I've also changed my attitude somewhat about that era," he said.
The design team for Jolson at George Street included Broadway veterans Theoni V. Aldredge (costume), Howell Binkley (lighting), Jim Youmans (set), David Van Tieghem (sound/composer).