When singer Lou Rawls guest-appeared in Broadway's Smokey Joe's Cafe back in spring 1999, he saw that a revuesical of pop hits could find a willing and nostalgic audience. As such, he started thinking about taking a similar approach to music closer to his own style.
The result -- albeit still in the conception stage -- is Me & Mrs. Jones, a soul-based musical built around the songs of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Now in pre-production, M&MJ is targeting a national tour starting spring 2001, with Rawls starring and co-producing with Murray Schwartz (former CEO of Merv Griffin Enterprises) and David Brokaw (Rawls' personal manager). According to Brokaw, the production team, Philadelphia Sound Company, acquired the theatrical rights to Gamble & Huff songs from Warner/Chappel Music.
Apart from the title tune, Gamble & Huff penned such R&B chart-makers as "Love Train," "When Will I See You Again," "Never Going to Give You Up," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Lady Love" and the Rawls standard, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine."
In a statement, Rawls said Gamble came to see him in Smokey Joe and gave his blessing to the project. "Given the success of Smokey Joe's Cafe, Fame and Mamma Mia!," said Rawls, "...there is clearly a demand for this type of hit musical."
Closer to Fame and the Abba musical than the Leiber & Stoller tuner, Mr. & Mrs. Jones will have something of a plot. A press release from co-producer Brokaw notes that, like the song, the musical Me & Mrs. Jones is based on the true story of a romance between a woman and a judge, the latter to be played by Rawls. Asked why the show would have a storyline rather than just be organized as a revue, co-producer Brokaw told Playbill On-Line (Aug. 15), "The feeling is that now, suddenly, there's a real demand and passion for taking the extraordinary catalogues of, say, Abba or Fame or Barry Manilow -- of taking great songs and putting them in this format. As the idea evolved for us, we felt the next step was to give the audience a storyline. It gives extra texture and adds dimension. Lou [Rawls] had the initial idea for the show, and then it was Murray [Schwartz], when listing all these huge hits, who said, `Gee, I think you really need a bit of a story to make this more appealing.' Any producer would want to have the incredible run Smokey Joe has had. I humbly suggest and wonder whether that show would have prospered even more had it had a storyline."
Charles Randolph Wright will direct the musical, which is not yet ready to announce a Mrs. Jones (though "negotiations are currently under way" the press release states). Broadway is a hoped-for goal of the piece down the road, but producer Brokaw is taking it one place at a time. "Our first priority is mounting a successful production, getting it up and running and getting an audience. We need to build our audience base and then think about Broadway."
Asked whether the Gamble/Huff catalogue might have a more limited and/or black-specific appeal than Leiber/Stoller's, and therefore might be marketed as such, Brokaw said, "We're doing a full-scale musical theatre piece, specifically geared towards Broadway-type theatres. These songs appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. Although the music comes from an R&B and soul background, everybody relates to `Me and Mrs. Jones' and has context for identification with it. The fact that the songs happen to have been written by black men doing so-called R&B and soul music is just another special dimension. Just as the Motown sound has been embraced, the sound of Philadelphia has been embraced worldwide."
The "Philadelphia Sound" was essentially a mellower, slicker, 1970s extension of Motown R&B. Performers of the era included the O'Jays ("Back Stabbers," "For the Love of Money"), Patti LaBelle, Melvin and the Bluenotes ("If You Don't Know Me By Now"), Teddy Pendergrass and The Spinners ("I'll Be Around," "Could I Be I'm Falling in Love").
-- By David Lefkowitz