NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Its almost like a kind of murder mystery, Kwame Kwei-Armah said with obvious relish. The play was butchered by the press, and somehow the body has disappeared.
The case the artistic director of Londons Young Vic Theater was referring to is a Broadway show called Swingin the Dream. Set in 1890 Louisiana, this musical variation of Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream, as it was billed, ran on Broadway for just 13 performances at the end of 1939, then sunk without a trace. The script itself is lost, save for a few pages from the Pyramus and Thisbe section.
So you have to wonder why prominent institutions the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic in Britain and New Yorks Theater for a New Audience would team up to revisit a theatrical footnote for a long-term project, which kicks off Saturday with a livestream concert of popular jazz tunes that comprised the score.
Once you begin digging, however, you have to wonder how not to be drawn to Swingin the Dream, which sat at the center of a complicated network of racial and cultural influences.
Lets start with an integrated cast of about 110 you read that right which included Louis Armstrong as Bottom; Butterfly McQueen and Oscar Polk, fresh from the Gone With the Wind set, as Puck and Flute; comedian Moms Mabley as Quince; singer Maxine Sullivan as Titania; and future Oscar nominee Dorothy Dandridge as a pixie. The Benny Goodman Sextet and Bud Freemans Summa Cum Laude Orchestra supplemented the pit musicians. (According to Ricky Riccardis recent book, Heart Full of Rhythm, Armstrong and Goodman fought over who would get top billing and ended up sharing it equally.)
And there was more: Agnes de Mille handled the choreography; the sets were inspired by Walt Disney cartoons; and the score burst with popular jazz tunes, as well as new ones like Darn That Dream by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie de Lange.
Yet this abundance of talent did not guarantee success. The reviews were mixed at best, and did not help fill the 3,500 seats of the Center Theater even with a top ticket price lowered to $2.
The show quickly faded into oblivion, though Darn that Dream has become a concert favorite, sung by Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson, among many others.
It will be part of the concert, which features a cast of RSC ensemble members and jazz performer Zara McFarlane.
Darn that Dream is a really important jazz standard that I play and accompany people with, so not to know its roots in a very important production, which they put so much money into, was really surprising, said Peter Edwards, the concerts music director, who only heard of Swingin the Dream when the RSC contacted him.
The project was set in motion well before the pandemic, and the heads of the three theaters arent sure what form it will take beyond the concert this weekend. But a full remount of the show sounds less likely than a forensic dive think CSI: Times Square. The George C. Wolfe meta-show Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which had a brief but acclaimed Broadway run in 2016, may provide a possible direction.
I just want to know what happened, why that lineup crashes, and then why the show seems so entirely to disappear, said Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Black newspapers at the time were among those divided on the show. An article in The Pittsburgh Courier praised a mighty mélange of music, mirth and mellow musing; another noted the many employment opportunities for Black performers.
The New York Amsterdam News, on the other hand, wondered if encouraging what it deemed a subpar effort would only delay the day when Negro actors and Negro art will be recognized without lampooning and burlesque.
The critics are telling us that it did not hang together, that the mashup did not work, Kwei-Armah said. Im interested in why it didnt work. Also, just because they said that it didnt work doesnt mean that it didnt work!
The locomotive pulling the train and its many, many wagons was Erik Charell, a gay, Jewish director-producer of revues who had resettled in the U.S. after fleeing Nazi Germany, and a fascinating character in his own right. His Broadway directing debut, in 1936, was an adaptation of his hit Berlin operetta White Horse Inn with a cast of 145 no wonder he was nicknamed the Ziegfeld of the German musical comedy stage.
Charell might have wanted to capitalize on the success of The Swing Mikado (1938) and The Hot Mikado (1939), two jazz-flavored adaptations of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but he was not quite ready for the thorny issues and challenges raised by an integrated show in pre-World War II America.
Clearly he is the man of the moment, hes got the Midas touch, Doran said of Charell. But is what he does an exploitation of that talent or a visionary piece of thinking?
Since Charell was a stranger to our native idiom, as a preview in The New York Times put it, he enrolled as co-writer American critic Gilbert Seldes, an early champion of popular culture.
For Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, not bringing in a Black co-writer was a big missed opportunity. Theres no person in that writing team who knows anything about African American culture and jazz, he said. They could have had Langston Hughes, they could have had Zora Neale Hurston. I dont think they even thought of that.
The racial and artistic dynamics at play in Swingin the Dream provide a precious glimpse into the commonplace misconceptions and hang-ups that shaped early 20th century American culture. The white cast members played the aristocrats and lovers, for example, while the Black performers handled the fairies and mechanicals comic entertainers, not romantic leads.
Another fascinating juxtaposition happened with the dancing, since de Milles choreography was supplemented with jitterbugs devised by the king of Harlem ballrooms, Herbert White, who brought along his troupe.
Most of the reviews complained that there was too much Shakespeare and not enough swing, with Armstrong wasted in a role that did not require him to blow his horn. The producers frantically tried to adapt and eventually gave their star more time on the trumpet. Alas, nothing worked, and Swingin the Dream closed.
Now all that remains is an alluring enigma, one whose making-of story has become more compelling than the final product.
Even if tomorrow the script turned up, we wouldnt be interested in it, Horowitz said. The real thing is about something else its about race, and context, and whos telling whose story.
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