Little Ham, the jazzy Langston Hughes-inspired musical comedy that has been billed as a kind of uptown Guys and Dolls, shutters Dec. 1 after 17 previews and 76 performances.
Eric Krebs produced Little Ham in association with Ted Snowdon, Martin Hummel, entitled entertainment and Amas Musical Theater. The musical has a score by Judd Woldin (Raisin), lyrics by Richard Engquist (Kuni-Leml) and Woldin, and book by Dan Owens.
The show began previews Sept. 12 and opened Sept. 26 at the John Houseman Theatre, 450 W. 42nd Street.
The producer told Playbill On-Line that he faced two issues when mounting the show at his John Houseman Theatre Off-Broadway: The high cost of producing a show (in this case $900,000), which creates a high-cost ticket that may be out of range for a non-traditional audience; and inconsistent — or unwelcoming — coverage by critics.
Without naming names, Krebs said he was mystified that one of the major papers was encouraging to Little Ham in its 2001-02 test run Off-Broadway and subsequently dismissive to the show when it leapt to an open-ended run Off-Broadway in September. "You would like to presume a certain wisdom and sophistication about the process of responding to a show, as well as certain consistency in response," Krebs said. "The industry, for whatever the reason, has evolved to the point where only the hits can run and many of the decent middle-range shows cannot."
One influential critic praised Andre Garner in the title role in 2001, and said he was wrong for the part in 2002.
"One hopes there will be a wise and consistent and thoughtful response, but that isn't necessarily the case," Krebs said, adding that when a major paper gives a show the thumbs-down, other media pull away from a project.
Krebs also bemoaned critics' "lack of understanding of what's possible on the Off-Broadway world," financially. Today, a five-piece band is considered huge in the Off Broadway arena where piano-and-voice, or two musicians, or synthesized music, is the trend. Instead of acknowledging the relative fullness of the Little Ham quintet, one reviewer suggested it was too small for the 299-seat theatre.
"There seemed to be no particular recognition with any of the critics that virtually nobody will do a show like this Off Broadway," Krebs said.
The short life of Little Ham, veteran producer Krebs said, is making him think more deeply about how and what he should be producing in the future. He said there was a greater crisis underneath it all: The health of the American book musical.
"The press is much more interested in a story of near closure and what's failing and whose gonna come to the rescue than in exploring what is wrong with the American book musical, and why are they not being produced successfully," Krebs said. "The critical establishment is not talking about the deepest issues of the American art form known as the book musical. They're talking of this singer as opposed to that singer, or this piece of scenery as opposed to that one..."
Krebs is talking to some "hip-hop folks" to see if a hip-hop dance show might be the next attraction at the Houseman. As to the future of Little Ham, there are some inquiries here and there from regional presenters, he said. A studio cast album with a slightly different cast than Off Broadway is on sale, preserving the score.
The production currently stars original cast members Cheryl Alexander, D'Ambrose Boyd, Brenda Braxton, Venida Evans, Jerry Gallagher, André Garner, Howard Kaye, Christopher L. Morgan, Julia Lema, Monica L. Patton, Joy Styles, Lee Summers, Richard Vida and Joe Wilson, Jr.
Little Ham is directed by Eric Riley, musical direction is by David Alan Bunn, choreography is by Leslie Dockery, orchestrations and arrangements are by Luther Henderson, set design is by Edward T. Gianfrancesco, costume design is by Bernard Grenier, and lighting design is by Richard Latta.
The show's source is the play of the same name by Hughes (1902-67), the towering African-American poet, novelist, playwright and lyricist.
The 15-track disc, produced by Eric Krebs and Jim Russek, includes "I'm Gonna Hit Today," "It's All In the Point of View," "Stick With Me, Kid," "No," "Get Yourself Some Lovin'," "That Ain't Right," "Cuttin' Out," "Room For Improvement," "Get Back," "Harlem, You're My Girl," "Angels," "Big Ideas," "Helluva Big Job," "Wastin' Time," "Say Hello To Your Feet."
The disc, which is also on sale at the theatre, features Cheryl Alexander, D'Ambrose Boyd, Venida Evans, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Jerry Gallagher, Andre Garner, Julia Lema, Kevyn Morrow, Stacey Sargeant, Joy Styles, Lee Summers, Richard Vida and Joe Wilson, Jr., representing a slight variation from the current cast.
"In 1936, the Harlem Renaissance is in full swing," according to production notes. "Nattily dressed street hustlers keep time to the sharp popping of shoeshine rags while hard-working locals relax by dancing and listening to the music of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Small time numbers games allow people to dream of luxuries beyond the reach of The Great Depression. When the downtown mob threatens to take over the uptown numbers game, they find the perfect ally in Hamlet Hitchcock Jones — also known as Little Ham. Ham is a smooth operator with fast feet and a quick wit. Coerced by Louie 'The Nail' Mahoney and the lure of big money, Ham goes to work for the mob. Assigned the duty of shaking down Tiny Lee's Beauty Shop, Ham must find a way to double cross the mob or risk betraying the girl he loves and abandoning his Harlem roots forever."
Producer Eric Krebs initiated the project in 1985 and took it through various drafts, including a 1987 staging at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. The most recent incarnation of the musical began in an Off-Off-Broadway arrangement by Amas Musical Theatre Nov. 14, 2001, at the 99-seat Hudson Guild Theatre. Krebs gave the show an extension to an Off-Broadway contract to make refinements and offer the press more chances to see it. It closed Jan. 6, 2002, after earning encouraging reviews. Krebs (Broadway's It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Electra) previously told Playbill On-Line the musical is filled with pungent characters typical of the folk who populated works by Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other Harlem Renaissance writers. Krebs got the rights to the work from the Hughes estate in 1985.
"It's fun and funny and warm and beautifully inspired by Langston's characters," Krebs said. "What first attracted me was not the story, which is substantially new by the book writer, Dan Owens. But the characters and language — the warmth, the spirit and energy of the community as Hughes wrote it."
Krebs calls it a musical comedy fable — the sort of show with tap-dancing gangsters.
Arranger-orchestrator Henderson has worked on more than two dozen Broadway productions in various capacities. For Ain't Misbehavin' he was the original pianist as well as orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor. For Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, he was the musical consultant and arranged several selections. Henderson orchestrated and co-composed Jelly's Last Jam. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1997 for orchestrating Play On!
The John Houseman Theatre is at 450 W. 42nd Street. For more information, visit www.little-ham.com.
— By Kenneth Jones