BWW Interviews: CHAPMAN ROBERTS Shares the Inspiration Behind THE BLACK STARS OF THE GREAT WHITE WAY
It was the great Marcus Garvey who said "Be as proud of your race today as our fathers were in days of yore. We have beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world."
It is a quote that has a message which rings true when looking at the Broadway actor, singer, conductor and arranger, Chapman Roberts's inspiration behind his latest venture, 100 Black Stars of the Great White Way.
The one night only star studded celebration spotlights the influence of African American men on Broadway through performances by some of the stages most treasured and memorable performers such as Billy Porter (2013 Tony Winner for Kinky Boots) André DeShields, Clifton Davis, and Keith David to name a few. Robert's carefully thought out concept honors some of the most instrumental forces in the history of Broadway; Geoffrey Holder, Harold Wheeler, Noble Sissle, Don McKayle, Louis Jordan, Luther Henderson, Larry Hamlin, Bob Guilaume and Stephen C. Byrd.
The concept is one that seems both larger than life yet long overdue. I chatted with it's (instead of it's, the show's) visionary, Chapman Roberts to get the story behind the once in a lifetime event.
(RK: Ryan Kilpatrick CR: Chapman Roberts)
RK: How did you get the inspiration to put together Black Stars of the Great White Way?
CR: Well, it's kind of a long story but I am going to try and shorten it. The story is going to be told at the concert. There was a photograph that was taken many years ago in the 50's on a brownstone on 126th street...or something like that in Harlem.
RK: Ah yes, I know that picture.
CR: It's famous, my friend owns the house next door. I got a phone call from a lady who doing photographs of theater notables, portraits with them being whatever character they wanted to be, so I chose to be Pope Victor I. Pope Victor I was the first known black pope and he was the first black emperor of Rome 629 AD. He was born in Tunisia. He was the one who instituted Latin as the language of the Catholic church, and he also was the person that decreed that the Church's power over church matters superseded the Roman state powers over Church matters. So he was a very important Pope. So I chose to pose as him. And when I finished the session I said to her, is there a photograph of all the black folks on Broadway, the way it is in that Jazz photograph? She said no. I said well "Why don't we do one" and she said "I don't know how to do that, what are we going to do?" and I said "Well I'll do it." So I sent out 10 emails said spread the word. I had Times Square closed off... the red stairs. I said "Meet me in Times Square October 7th 2011, 11 o'clock, we'll be finished by noon, and 500 people showed up, including Sam Jackson and Angela Bassett, Geoffrey Holder, Louis Johnson, Tonya Pinkins, Maurice Hines, Norm Lewis.... all the black people who are anything on Broadway showed up. We took the photograph and when we finished with the photograph Norm (Lewis) little did he know at that point that he was going to be the first black Phantom on Broadway, Norm walked up and said you know what.... and I had them sing something and you can imagine what those voices sounded like in Times Square.... and he said "You know I had this dream about doing a concert at Carnegie Hall with all the black men on Broadway." I said "Why don't you do it?" He said, I don't know how to do that." I said "Well, I didn't know how to do this picture and here it is, let's do the concert." He said okay and here we are, and a week from now that photograph, that was inspired from the first photograph inspired the Carnegie Hall concert.
RK: So, why Carnegie Hall? Was it mostly inspired by the dream?
CR: Well, that's the dream of any performing artist, to sing at Carnegie Hall. Not only because it is prestigious but because it's acoustically perfect. This is a celebration of 100 years of Jazz at Carnegie Hall and 100 years of the history of African American Men on Broadway, you see... because the jazz artists who performed at Carnegie Hall since 1912 are the same people that bought African American music to Broadway. The first jukebox musicals we not Mama Mia or Jersey Boys the first Jukebox musical was in 1976 it was called Bubbling Brown Sugar and it features the music of Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Earl Heinz. It also won the 1977 Grammy Award which I arranged and conducted. They now pretend that Jersey Boys and Mama Mia are the first Jukebox musicals... it's not true at all. After we did Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1976 we proceeded to do Your Arms are too short to Box with God which was a Gospel Jukebox Musical in 1977, in fact I had most of those shows running simultaneously on Broadway, and then we proceeded to do Blues in the Night which was all blues songs, all famous Jukebox Blues songs, and then we went from there and did Eubie, which was the music of Eubie Blake and then we went from there and did Sophisticated Lady which was the music of Duke Ellington and then we went from there and we did Ain't Misbehaving which was the music of Fats Waller, and then we went from there and did Five Guys Named Moe which was the music of Louis Jordan and we went from there and did Smokey Joe's Cafe.
CR: African American men invented the jukebox musical, and when we did it the critics tried to kill us, they tried to destroy us, they laughed at us, they said "You don't know what theater is, this isn't Broadway." So we invented that... so why Carnegie Hall? Because we have a history at Carnegie Hall since 1912, the first jazz was in Carnegie Hall. Every single musician that we are honoring, Cab Calloway, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Noble Sissle.... who wrote all the lyrics for Eubie Blakes music... Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, they all performed at Carnegie Hall. Then that music was introduced into Broadway shows. That is the parallel of African American men on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall.
RK: What is your overall goal for the evening?
CR: Well it's a History lesson isn't it? Once there was a very famous lady, her name was Josephine Baker, and what people don't know is that she was in the original cast of Shuffle Along in 1921 which was written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Also in that cast was a little skinny guy named Nat King Cole, also in that cast was a little skinny girl named Blanche Calloway whose brother was Cab (Calloway) who was also a big star at the time. Josephine Baker once said to someone at the time "I am going to tell you why you shouldn't have asked that question, the reason you have to ask me that question is because the story that we are telling, has never been properly told." Everybody should know that Jazz has been in Carnegie Hall over 100 years. Everybody should know that Bubbling Brown Sugar is the first Jukebox musical and spawned all of the Jukebox musicals Rock of Ages.... everything that's on Broadway. Everybody should know that Louis Jordan was the king of the Jukebox, that he was doing music videos in the 40's and you would put a nickel in the jukebox and you would hear his music and you would also see of video of him and his band performing right there in the club. Everybody should know that. Everybody should know that Harry Truman got elected partially because he used as a campaign song... the first person to have a campaign song and the only person since. In 1945 he had a campaign song that was written by a black man, about a black man called "I'm just wild about Harry." It was from Shuffle Along in 1941. Everybody should know that. So when we talk about the influence of African American music we even go into politics, we have influenced the entire social order of the planet. The entire Civil Rights Movement was propelled by song. The way we survived coming from Africa into this country was by singing as we were being oppressed and transmuting that music into a beauty that mesmerized people. We sang ourselves through the civil rights movement and we are a powerful people because we are the only people in the world that has defeated the greatest country in the history of mankind without an army with guns, tanks, airplanes and bombs. We did it with our music and we are still doing it.
Showtime is Monday June 23rd, 2014 at 8pm at Carnegie Hall