Almost all of my life—no kidding—I have been in love with American popular music of the 20th Century. Music by the greats--Harold Arlen , Irving Berlin , Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Frank Loesser, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and others. Music when songs were songs, I mean with lyrics that were clever, with words that were poetry. At five I knew all the words to all the songs and I sang all the time. “Give me lands, lots of land under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in…. At seven I’m looking over a four leaf clover; as a teen--Birds do it, Bees do it, even educated fleas do it, Let’s do it, lets’ fall in love…….”
Now, it is a known fact and the source of great mirth among Touring Theatre artists and personnel, that I can’t carry a tune in a shower, a basket or even a truck. But in my head, I know how the music is supposed to sound. I just can’t reproduce the sounds. When developing a children’s show, for example, I would think of a lullaby. “This would be perfect here, ” I’d say, and then try to sing the song to the actors while they looked at me in confusion. This affliction of not being able to sing had been great frustration to me since the time I was forced to accept the fact that I couldn’t sing. You see, I didn’t believe my kindergarten report that said, “Sings out of key alone and with others,” so throughout elementary school I always auditioned for musicals. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t cast as Gretel instead of a gingerbread girl (not even a real role) when I knew I was a better actor than the rest.
Still, music was almost always in my head. Since the beginning of Touring Theatre, I have used music in most of the shows I have created—for theme, for emotion, for context…and during rehearsals I sing along with the others—only very quietly-- to myself so the actors won’t laugh. I think my affinity for popular music was what brought me to create sort of “extended cabarets” of songs that I fancied. The first was 23 Skiddoo songs of the 20’s-- the flapper era—probably produced in 1984; fifteen years later Sentimental Journey featured the songs of WWII and ten years after that, Duke Ellington Uptown featured the composers songs along with facts about his life.
Just as we call our productions based on Southern families—stories by Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Fred Chappell, Todd Johnson—even my own Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta—the Kinfolk Series, we can commit ourselves to producing regularly “extended cabarets” of culturally significant music and call it the Song Book Series.
The deal is, is that these cannot be alike. Each has to take its own form. 23 Skidoo was a song and dance review, Sentimental Journey told the story of WWII at the Overseas Replacement Depot in Greensboro on VE Day and Duke Ellington Uptown was presented a night club act. It’s been three years since Duke premiered and we’re now working with Gershwin. Who will it be in 2020? And will I sing?