BWW Interview: Celebrating the Elegance of the Duke and the Harlem Renaissance
"I did this show two decades ago with these amazing ladies, and I asked them if they would be willing to reprise their performances. When they said 'yes,' I was thrilled to be able to bring this new production here to MSMT."
Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark is speaking about Maine State Music Theatre's 2019 season opener, the dazzling Duke Ellington revue, SOPHISTICATED LADIES, and its co-stars E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields, who are now playing at Brunswick's Pickard Theater. Butler, Fields, and Jessica A. Lawyer, one of the astounding dancers in the show, have joined Clark and BROADWAY WORLD'S Maine Editor, Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, on June 12 at Curtis Memorial Library to discuss the production at the opening panel discussion of the theatre's annual PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN series.
Butler begins the conversation talking about the sheer elegance of Duke Ellington, his music, and his era. Citing his intricate rhythms and intervals, he calls Ellington "the Stephen Sondheim of his time."
Fields elaborates, describing Ellington's sound: "It is a complex sound; it's like a collage of things in somebody's head. It's not just a plain, standard song. You get to hear a whole montage of what is going on. It takes a vocalist like Ella Fitzgerald to keep up with a Duke Ellington song. She could hear what normal people can't, and she has fluidity. I don't think there is anybody who can scat and riff between notes the way Ella can." Fields loves not only the big swing and jazz numbers, but says she is especially partial to "the ballads like "Something to Live For" or "Solitude." There is a beauty and introspection in the words and in the dance movement."
Butler also notes the Duke's use of the orchestra. "In this production we have eleven pieces on stage playing and making that incredible big-band sound, so imagine what the thirty-piece symphonic orchestra Duke used that sounded like!"
MSMT's production of SOPHISTICATED LADIES, however, is not only a feast for the ears, but a sensational choreographic extravaganza. Lawyer explains to the audience how Director Marc Robin used three choreographers - Mark Stuart (swing), Kenny Ingram (Harlem), and himself (tap) to create the breadth of dance styles showcased in the work. She describes the process for the dancers. "We began with Mark's [Stuart] teaching us the basic swing techniques along with the ballet needed to communicate properly with partners and to do all those throw ups and other classic swing moves true to that time period. It was a style of dance I had never done before," she adds. 'Then Kenny Ingram choreographed the whole jazz Harlem section, which he made gritty and beautiful and created a through line story." Then Marc [Robin] had us tapping all over the place and creating characters in tap." Lawyer comments on the virtuosity needed to perform these dances eight times a week. She explains her warm up and cool down routines and notes that one of the biggest challenges for the dance ensemble is "that we have to transform into a different character each time we come on stage; we have to physically change because the different styles require different centers of gravity each time, as well." But, she notes that while dancers convey character in action, an introspective duet like Butler and Fields' "Mood Indigo" is as "an acting class in itself."
Butler says that song is about two women from two different worlds that connect through the music, though they sing of their pain without ever focusing on each other. Clark adds that the emotion of the experience comes from the way the song "gives permission to say to yourself, 'I am not the only one in pain; I am not alone.'"
Fields concurs, saying, " One of the beautiful things about this show is that we get the opportunity to witness the audience's enjoyment. This is a show where I can see into the house and see the faces of people enjoying the music and connecting to it. They touch each other's hands or sigh. It's exciting to know you are giving these emotional memories to the audience. If we as actors bring you [the audience] joy, that brings us joy. And nothing compares to a lifetime of doing what brings you joy."
Lawyer endorses that belief, saying, "I have so much fun on stage, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. There is such joy in doing what you love to do!"
The panel talks about other elements which make SOPHISTICATED LADIES truly joyful and elegant. Fields praises Jeff Hendry's more than 300 costumes, "each section color coordinated, many glittering when they hit the lights. Beautiful costumes like this transform you and help you tell a story."
But perhaps even more than all the lavish production elements, the panel feels SOPHISTICATED LADIES and two other of the summer's productions, LETTIN' THE GOOD TIMES ROLL and AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', make a powerful concerted statement about an important period in American history and culture, the Harlem Renaissance. Butler enthuses, "I love what Curt [Dale Clark] is doing with programming here. You have to start somewhere, and these shows are a great way to educate your audience and to bring in a New Group of people."
Clark agrees, saying he programmed the three shows not only because of the availability of these legendary actresses, but also because [this programming] is sometimes "lacking here, and it needs to happen. I got a letter two years ago from a patron saying she missed seeing diversity on stage that season. And she was right. It hadn't been intentional, but that letter slapped me in the face. I said we have to fix this, and this is the beginning of doing just that."
So the 2019 season will continue this effort in Butler and Fields' cabaret LETTIN' THE GOOD TIMES ROLL, which explores, jazz, blues, gospel, and the performers' personal journeys, and in the co-production with Portland Stage in August, Fats Waller's AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', which Butler describes as another show about "a forgotten artist and musician." Waller, she says, "was robust in size as well as in life, and he was another major part of the Harlem Renaissance."
And what makes the Harlem Renaissance so special? Unhesitatingly, Butler replies, " It was a movement of primarily African-Americans in Harlem - Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, the Nicholas Brothers..." she continues with a long list of storied names. "These people wanted to show the beauty of Harlem and to make the point that we [as African-Americans] were just as educated, just as proud of who we are and what we do, and that we had an elegance that sometimes people overlooked. Especially because African-Americans couldn't go into other parts of New York, they created a whole world of their own with libraries and museums, and the Cotton Club, boogey clubs, and brothels or "gentlemen's clubs" as they were called. This show is a way of letting another group of people into a world they don't usually see. SOPHISTICATED LADIES is a little snippet of what that period and movement were all about - how glorious it was. I always encourage people to go beyond the show, to go seek more information about what the Harlem Renaissance was."
Clark amplifies this theme of education, noting that SOPHISTICATED LADIES is an all-singing, all-dancing revue, to which many patrons have not been accustomed. "It's partly training, because I have given them so many book shows that they forget this other kind of show exists. People just have to get used to new things."
Applying his comments to the overall discussion, Butler concludes, "An audience has to tune its ear to where we [the performers] are, not where it might like to be. It's like listening to a radio. One has to sit, stay, and experience what one hears in the moment."
And if one truly listens to SOPHISTICATED LADIES and its remarkable cast and creative team, one cannot help but take away the wisdom of Butler's words, "If you just reach out and broaden it we all come closer together."
Photo courtesy of MSMT, Olivia Wenner, photographer
MSMT's SOPHISTICATED LADIES runs until June 22, 2019 at the Pickard theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org