Queenie Pie was the talk of the town and Duke Ellington was the reason. When the great jazz composer died in 1974, he left behind an unfinished “street opera” that offered resplendent possibilities with its exuberant score, Harlem setting and memorable characters. A little-known writer named George C. Wolfe was brought in to work on the book and choreographer Garth Fagan staged Queenie Pie‘s heralded 1986 premiere in Philadelphia. New York Times critic Robert Palmer called it “a wonderfully vital and coherent work [that] has the sparkle and the memorable tunes of a superior Broadway musical, and that is surely where the show belongs — on Broadway, with its name in lights.”
Or not. In 1986, Broadway wasn’t quite ready for Ellington’s street opera. A few weeks after the Philadelphia opening, the Times reported that, “The only thing missing from the money reviews was the money,” (a line familiar to me, as I wrote it). But Ellington’s posthumous collaborators prevailed, in a big way: Fagan went on to collaborate with Julie Taymor, devising the dances for The Lion King. And Wolfe? He followed up Queenie Pie as author of the dangerous comedy The Colored Museum before blooming into the most important American director of the last quarter-century, a Broadway hyphenate whose credits as writer and director include projects that didn’t merely push the envelope, they obliterated it: Jelly’s Last Jam. Angels In America. Bring In Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk. Twilight: Los Angeles. Caroline, Or Change. HBO’s Lackawanna Blues: No other director — certainly none since the heyday of Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune — has done more to breathe fresh, cinematic life and intellectual challenge into the hand-crafted game of staging live theater.
Wolfe’s mind and mouth operate simultaneously in the red line of the human tachometer, and his missteps (Harlem Song, On The Town) were as important as his hits. Now he’s linked up with that talent aggregator Scott Rudin on at least two projects: Rudin’s plan with Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg to erect a $170 million arts park floating in the Hudson River just below 14th Street and, now with a new Broadway musical on themes close to Wolfe’s heart: He will write and direct another “Or” musical, namely Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation Of 1921 (we can only hope that, as Away We Go! morphed into Oklahoma! by the time it arrived in New York, this cumbersome title will be merely the chrysalis of something beautifuller).
The new show, optimistically slated to begin previews next March 14 the Shubert-owned Music Box Theatre, is about the 1921 Eubie Blake/Noble Sissle musical that opened on Broadway at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre in 1921 and featured, in addition to the title song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and the intriguing “If You Haven’t Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven’t Been Vamped at All.” It was, at 504 performances, a long-running hit and is credited with launching the careers of both Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Blake and Sissle didn’t do too badly, either.
The new Shuffle Along reunites Wolfe with his Jelly and Funk collaborator, the choreographer and tap master Savion Glover, and will star Audra McDonald (playing the original show’s star, Lottie Gee), who have nine Tony Awards among them (six alone for McDonald, a record). It will have music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Daryl Waters. The production will feature scenic design by Santo Loquasto, costume design by Ann Roth, and lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Studio 54 was packed with an enthusiastic, not to say raucous crowd last night, for Cabaret, which is nearing the March 29 end of its remarkable run, the year-long reprise of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Roundabout Theatre Company revival that had its premiere in 1998 and has starred Alan Cumming as the M.C. and a roster of Sally Bowleses that began with the late Natasha Richardson and will close with Sienna Miller as the coke-snorting, gin-guzzling Kit Kat Klub chanteuse. Miller, who has a major role in American Sniper and a smaller one in Foxcatcher, also played the Dauntless Trouper this week, performing despite a black eye and stitches following an unscripted tete-a-tete with a stage prop.
None of the three Sallys in the current stand — it began last April with Michelle Williams — has been remotely like the other. Miller’s performance falls somewhere between the brave but miscast Williams and the ferocious (and, if possible, too good) Emma Stone, with a smart and convincing portrayal that recalls her breakout role as Andy Warhol’s Factory Girl Edie Sedgwick: There’s a rag-doll quality to the gamine Miller that’s as much the result of Sally’s physical disintegration as it is of her psychological vulnerability. She’s almost meek, which makes a strong case for the protectiveness that the gay writer Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck) feels for her. It’s intelligent and compelling, if only, in the end, about 90% satisfying.
Cumming, remarkably, is still solidly and unwholesomely in command of the show, while Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, have grown more powerful, more unforgettable, every time I’ve seen them.