Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Great Misbehavin'

This week's Dance Party comes from what is generally considered the most artistically successful musical revue to ever appear on Broadway, Ain't Misbehavin'. With a score composed of Fats Waller tunes, the show celebrated the explosion of black swing music between the world wars, a time commonly called the Harlem Renaissance, during which The Cotton Club and the Savoy became the hottest nightspots in New York. Ain't Misbehavin' began at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1978 (a young Irene Cara was in the cast; she would later make a splash in the original movie musical Fame). By the time the show moved to Broadway, it had a five-member ensemble of real showstoppers, all of whom, with one exception, continue to work today. Amelia McQueen has become a dramatic actress, and Andre DeShields has dipped his toe into classical theatre. Ken Page has appeared in numerous films, TV shows, and on the cabaret stage, while Charlayne Woodard is now a respected playwright.

The show was very much an ensemble effort, but there was clearly a breakout star: Nell Carter.

The story of Carter's personal life includes one tragedy after another. She was rendered fatherless when her dad stepped on a power line and was electrocuted. At the age of 16, she was raped at gun point, a crime which led to the birth of a daughter. She endured two failed marriages, three miscarriages, two bankruptcies, an attempted suicide, and a brain aneurysm. She struggled with substance abuse throughout her life and died at the age of 54, from a heart attack brought on by obesity-related diabetes. At the time of her death, she had come to terms with her bisexuality, and was survived by her partner, Ann Kaser.

But Carter was a real dynamo in her professional life. She headlined a successful sitcom for six years (Gimme A Break), for which she received two Emmy nominations. She was equally well-known for her vocal ability, and she appears to good effect in the film musical Hair (compared to her later girth, she is positively svelte as she rocks out to "White Boys"). She was Michael Bennett's original choice for the role of Effie in Dreamgirls, a role she helped develop during the show's workshop period. She deserted the project to take a role on the soap Ryan's Hope, which launched her television career.

On stage, she has the distinction of appearing opposite Bette Davis in the disastrous attempt to musicalize The Corn is Green (Miss Moffat died on the road). She had greater success in Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, and won the Tony for her performance in Ain't Misbehavin'. It was her presence in that cast which encouraged a version of the show to be televised in 1982, during her run in Gimme A Break; she won an Emmy for her performance in this TV version of her Broadway triumph.

Our Nell made a high-profile return to Broadway as the headliner of the 20th Anniversary production of Annie. She was soon butting heads with the producers, who refused to shoot a new commercial advertising the show; Carter was incensed that the ad which ran on television featured white actress Marcia Lewis in Carter's starring role of Miss Hannigan. The revival lasted long enough for Carter to be replaced by another white actress, Sally Struthers.

As for Ain't Misbehavin', the show not only won the Tony as Best Musical, it set the standard for the revue genre. Its original production ran over 1600 performances, and spawned high-profile productions in London and Paris. A 1995 national tour of the show starred the Pointer Sisters, and a 30th Anniversary tour starring American Idol Ruben Studdard recently made the rounds. Cast recordings of both these tours are available, but they could not possibly hold a candle to the two-disc set which preserves the dynamic performances of the originals (that Original Cast recording won the Grammy). I have to confess that I am waiting for the day when "non-traditional casting" gets to go both ways; I'm dying to sing some of those Ken Page numbers.

From the television version of Ain't Misbehavin', enjoy the Waller Girls and Guys:

Nell Carter's birthday is Sunday. She would have been 61.