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BWW Interviews: Talking Up SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE at Arena Stage - Part 1


The toe-tapping musical retrospective highlighting the legacy of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Smokey Joe's Café is heating up the rehearsal rooms of Arena Stage preparing for an April 25 opening. The show's tunestack is packed with more than 40 Leiber and Stoller hit songs, including "Kansas City," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," I'm a Woman," "On Broadway," "Stand by Me," and the song that put Elvis on the map, "Hound Dog," just to name a few.

Nine performers will take the stage in Smokey Joe's Café when it runs April 25 through June 8 on the Fichlander Stage, including Arena Stage veteran E. Faye Butler (Oklahoma!, Pullman Porter Blues), and DC's own Nova Y. Payton (Signature Theatre's Hairspray and Dreamgirls), who are joined by Tony Award winner (Million Dollar Quartet) Levi Kreis. Other cast members include Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Michael J. Mainwaring, Stephawn P. Stephens, and Kara Tameika Watkins.

Smokey Joe's Café is directed by Randy Johnson, returning to the Mead Center for American Theater after bringing his production of One Night with Janis Joplin to Arena Stage last season, which lead to a run on Broadway. Serving as choreographer for the production is Parker Esse (Oklahoma! and The Music Man at Arena). Victor Simonson is the musical director.

During a break in rehearsals, the two men sat down with BroadwayWorld's Jeffrey Walker to talk about the show, the legacy of Leiber and Stoller's collaboration and putting their own stamp on a show that ran on Broadway for 2,036 performances.

This is part one of Jeffrey Walker's interview with Johnson and Esse.

JEFFREY WALKER: What do Leiber and Stoller mean to us today?

RANDY JOHNSON: I really think that Leiber and Stoller were responsible for shaping the way a generation

Randy Johnson (PHOTO CREDIT: Eric La Cour)


PARKER ESSE: Absolutely. And they wrote for that culture without imitating anything -

RJ: They didn't imitate a thing!

PE: They were creating with them and for them.

RJ: Before Leiber and Stoller, the girl groups were singing nice tunes and nice words and I don't think they know what they were talking about. Then all of a sudden, Leiber and Stoller were talking about specific things and that opened the gateway. For the Exciters, there was the song "Tell Him" - which is one of the great rock and roll songs ever. That song came to be because Leiber and Stoller wrote "Trouble" and "Jailhouse Rock." Those songs gave writers permission to explore that material and it opened the ears of the audience to hear it. That's why I think they were so ahead of their time.

To me, the Great American Songbook is different to everybody. Like to one generation it's Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gershwin. To my sister's generation, it's Leiber and Stoller and Ellie Greenwich, Carole King and Jerry Goffin.

PE: They shaped rock and roll.

RJ: I don't think Elvis Presley would have been "Elvis Presley" if they hadn't created that music. I think the collaboration between Jerry, Mike and Elvis helped to create all three of their careers.

PE: Same thing with the Coasters and the Drifters, those groups, and then other artists came along and sang that material afterwards. But it was created for them, for the Coaster to have that hit single, or the same thing with the Drifters.

You also think about how some songs were edited or torn up to fit an artist. It wasn't like that here with Leiber and Stoller; it was this is what we wrote and this is what you're going to do.

RJ: I'm not sure the public realizes that they contributed to the career of Peggy Lee. "Some Cats Know," "I'm a Woman," and "Is That All There Is?" were all hits for her, written by Mike and Jerry. After they met, they began a lifetime collaboration.

JW: From rock and roll to Peggy Lee, supper club, jazz, that's quite a leap.

PE: It was a whole other genre of music.

RJ: The scope of their work is immense: they fit into rock and roll, into jazz, into the blues, and they fit into theatre. I think that's why Smokey Joe's Café has worked so successfully in theatres because they really understood all four of those forms. They just did what they did.

PE: So that something in it appeals to everybody.

JW: Looking at the songs that are included in Smokey Joe's Café, each one stands on its own as a big hit on some chart.

RJ: I think they were all hits in their own lanes. Everyone has some memory of the first time they heard one of these songs. This show takes you back, even if they are kids for whom the first time they heard "Jail House Rock" was on 'American Idol.' The Elvis stuff keeps getting bigger; DeeDee Bridgewater is recording this stuff now, too. It's timeless. There's a universal truth in these songs.

Now we have people re-reading Jack Kerouac, re-reading Fitzgerald, listening to Leiber and Stoller - these are all cultural moments that keep defining us as people and artists.

JW: During this process so far, was there something that surprised you?

PE: I think the way we've gotten into the storytelling in our own way, that's been the most thrilling thing.

RJ: Yes, we found the connective tissue, which did not start out that way. It's like it took on an organic life on its own.

JW: The power of these songs?

RJ: Yes, and Leiber and Stoller were clearly in tune with each other when they worked together for 60 years. And they were in tune with the universal needs of the time. That's been huge.

PE: Their stars had aligned. It was meant to be for the two of them to create together and they created one hit after another. And this show, it's more than just a concert or a revue.

RJ: I hate the term jukebox musical. This is really its own statement, its own piece and everybody who gets to work on it puts their own mark on it. Every day we have discovered new things, and new ways to land the plane. And we are enjoying it all the way; it's a very joyful set.

PE: It's also nice to have a process where we have had time to continue to be creative and not just have to throw up a 42 number show in nine days. We've been able to get it up on its feet, talk about it, tweak things, even rethink things at times.

RJ: I said to Parker from the first day, my process is fluid. I will change things. I'll change tempos, I'll change structure up until we open it; this will keep as a work in process. If you are game to that then we go. We just fit from the beginning.

JW: Sort of like Leiber and Stoller fit together.

PE: Yes.

RJ: Right. I think that we honor the spirit of their team work.

In Part 2, Randy Johnson and Parker Esse talk about more about their collaboration and the cast that will bring their vision of Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller to Arena Stage, April 25 through June 8, 2014.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Tickets range from $50 to $99. There are many special packages and ticket offers. Click here for more information.

Go to for more information or call 202.488.3300. Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater is located at 1101 Sixth Street SW, WDC.

PHOTO CREDITS: Illustration by Paul Rogers. Parker Esse (Courtesy of Arena Stage). Randy Johnson - Photo by Eric La Cour

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