In this Hamiltonian season of Tappin' Thru Life, Shuffle Along, Eclipsed and The Color Purple, it's good to have a book around like "Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way," just to understand how these shows got to the Rialto and what all that took.
Three centuries of push, shove and progress against rigid obstacles and prejudices of the time are chronicled in this informative, lovingly illustrated coffee-table tome published in March 2014.
It's difficult to imagine a better read for February — Black History Month — than a book that celebrates the special contributions of African Americans, onstage and off. From Eubie Blake to Duke Ellington, from Lorraine Hansberry to August Wilson, from Pearl Bailey to Audra McDonald, from Lloyd Richards to George C. Wolfe, "Black Broadway" chronicles the legacy of African American performers and productions from minstrel shows to vaudeville, through the Jazz Age and up to present day.
Each of its eight chapters, covering eight eras of significance, open with a "Starring In Order of Appearance" title-card, naming notables featured in that section. Eighteen names bow in the first chapter, 102 in the last — that's progress! — a gamut that runs from Bert Williams' vaudeville struts to Cicely Tyson's The Trip to Bountiful. "Black Broadway" is the work of an industrious Caucasian named Stewart F. Lane, who, among numerous other Renaissance Man distinctions, happens to be a six-time Tony-winning producer and the co-proprietor of Broadway's Palace Theatre. Lane recently marked his own milestone with a caricature makeover at Sardi's and was joined by subjects of his book including Maurice Hines and Brian Stokes Mitchell.
As a theatre-owner Lane has put his money where his mouth is on more than one occasion, and as recently as last year when he turned his Palace over to the collected works of Tupac Shakur for Holler If Ya Hear Me. He changed the theatre's plush bordello-red to gunmetal grey and redid the seating plan to look like an arena stadium Shakur might have played.
"We're always trying to create a new experience for the theatre," he explains. "You don't want the same old thing all the time. Over the years, I've been involved with shows that tried to create an environmental theatre. For Teaneck Tanzi, we actually transformed the Nederlander into a wrestling arena for Deborah Harry and Andy Kaufman. In the case of Holler, it was an intimate musical, and the theatre itself is 1,700-plus seats. For atmosphere, and to complement the piece, we scaled down the theatre to make it a more intimate experience. I had a great time with the show."
Lane likes to jokingly refer to "Black Broadway" as "a companion piece" to his earlier "Jews on Broadway," but the concept did grow out of that first book.
"'Jews on Broadway' was always one I wanted to expand on, but I couldn't get the publisher to agree with me at the time," he says. "When I got the idea to do African Americans in the theatre, I wanted to do it better. I wanted to do it right. After a little searching, I finally found the right publisher — Square One — who shared that vision and said, 'Yes, we'll go after the photographs, we'll go after the illustrations.'"
The rise of African Americans in the arts was accompanied by sweeping social changes, marked in a timeline running alongside the main narrative at the bottom of pages. "The Jews' contribution to theatre came primarily in the 20th century, so I was delighted to find the African American experience entailed more than the 20th century. It actually goes back to the introduction of slavery in 1624, so there was a deeper, richer history of American theatre. That was a nice surprise."
Aside from his writings, much of Lane's work emanates from his collaboration with his wife and producing partner, Bonnie Comley. The "new and improved" Sardi's portrait includes a place for her. "We count it a vote of confidence they think we'll stay together," Lane cracks. Should they actually turn into a two-Lane highway at this late date, much more than a caricature would have to be torn in two. The Comley/Lane Theatre on the campus of her alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, would have to be altered, as would the Lane/Comley Fellowship at his alma mater, Boston University.
"Boston University is a great school for theatre," he says. "I set up an endowment that allows actors in the senior class — usually, about 20 — to come to New York and audition for casting directors and producers. It gives them a leg up."
Currently, the Lanes are represented on the Main Stem with the Emilio and Gloria Estefan musical, On Your Feet!, and they hope to doff their Top Hat on Broadway, too, by bringing over from London their Olivier Award-winning stage reworking of the famous 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-Irving Berlin film. There is also a from-the-ground-up new musical in the works. "I've been working on it 'only' six years, so it's still in the realm of development," Lane says with an air of weariness.
"The working title is A Moment in Time. I was able to acquire the rights to the John Denver songbook, and I've written the book to the musical. It's an original story inspired by his music and lyrics, but it's not a biography. Sheldon Epps will direct it. If we can get all our ducks in a row, we could have a tour starting next spring."
But most of the Lanes' energies these days are going into BroadwayHD, an online streaming service they launched in October. It aspires to be the Netflix of Broadway.
"Eventually," he says, "we envision five platforms that we could use to help monetize a production, just like The Met Live or The Brits [National Theatre Live] do. We shoot it live, then we do an encore production — that's a [re-broadcast] of the live production — then we edit it into something we can show in movie theatres, then go to broadcast television with NET or cable, and finally go back to streaming on BroadwayHD."
Expanding a theatre-to-film library that's affordable is their primary concern. "We're up to 130 shows at present. We teamed up with NET to shoot Incident at Vichy with Richard Thomas and with HBO to shoot Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill with Audra. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well… and in our library, along with others in The American Film Theatre series that Ely Landau did in the 70s — Lee Marvin in The Iceman Cometh. We just added the Bette Midler Gypsy, BBC stuff, Channel 13 . . ."
His eye is always out for different venues to increase the library. "The City Center Encores! series could be a possibility. We might even expand the Broadway umbrella to include Broadway touring shows or Broadway stars doing regional theatre. It's the quality of Broadway we're looking for, as well as the Broadway experience."
Lane knows well what that looks like. It took one play at age ten to convince him that theatre was the life for him. He has done everything you can in theatre — starting, of course, with acting. "I did summer stock with Van Johnson, tours with Ed Herlihy, modeling, radio, soap operas, anything I could get my hands on."
In time, he got his hands on the other side of the footlights and started as assistant house manager at the Brooks Atkinson, but he kept his Equity card and whipped it out two summers ago at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor to play Erronius (the Buster Keaton role) in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
He became co-owner of the Palace with the Nederlanders in 1980; it was a theatre nobody wanted. "Broadway was dying, and the Palace was considered a white elephant, but I felt this is a cyclical business and [it] would turn around." When he started working there in 1978, the turning was slow. A production of Grand Tour had a bumpy, brief ride, followed by a one-night, $2-million disaster named Frankenstein. But a revival of Oklahoma! with Christine Andreas was a hit, and, by the time he assumed active ownership in 1981, he was sitting pretty with Lauren Bacall's Woman of the Year.
"From then on, we were the house of hits. We had La Cage aux Folles, followed by The Will Rogers Follies, and then Disney came in with Beauty and the Beast."
Unlike other producers who find themselves with extra time on their hands, Lane put a pen in his and began chronicling some of the theatrical history he was making.
"Ultimately, I hope Black Broadway is an optimistic book that shows how far we've come." Just look at the increase of color-blind casting, he pointed out. "I've done shows with multi-racial casts, and the talent of the performers always take precedent over the logic of the era. I did The Best Man with James Earl Jones as an ex-President. Someone said to me, 'It bothered me he was a black President in 1964. That would never have happened.' I said, 'That's true, but wasn't he brilliant?'"
Lane doesn't believe such a stance necessarily puts him on the side of the angels. "I'm on the side of the American theatre," he said. "The whole idea of being creative is exploring new things and keeping an open mind about what you're doing."