Novelists seem infatuated by the Jazz Age. Whether it’s “Lost Generation” authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises) and Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway), or contemporary writers like Anna Godbersen (Bright Young Things) & Libba Bray (The Diviners). Broadway historians, theatre makers and writers also seem to be obsessed. However it seems when it comes to the art of storytelling on the proscenium stage, very few are fascinated by or specialize in the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement and “Negro Vogue” period of the 1920s. This is noticeable especially in the world of American musical theatre.
Thank God for Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe, who has been a staunch advocate of showcasing black talent in the Jazz Age. Since his NYC directorial debut, Wolfe has enthusiastically raised awareness of African American culture in the post-war period of the United States on the proscenium stage. With the 1986 off-Broadway production of The Colored Museum—a satirical variety show that subverts and cross-examines prominent themes and identities of black urbanity, Western civilization and popular culture—, Wolfe explored the complexities of that time. In his Obie winning 1989 follow-up, Spunk, Wolfe showed instances of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the major forces operating in that generation of 1920s black intelligentsia and how they were debased by white America, their peers and ultimately history. Via tap dance, with his 1996 musical revue spectacular Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, Wolfe showed how that time period (and prior African American history) influenced the present. He has done so consistently, whether it was co-writing and directing The Wild Party with ecoteric musical theatre composer Michael John LaChiusa in 2000 or his visionary 2016 reboot, Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. But zero theatremakers have actually taken it upon themselves to recreate the Harlem Renaissance on the Broadway stage with some of its more illustrious and notorious luminaries.
Sure, there’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Bubbling Brown Sugar, but outside these topsy-turvy Jazz Age revues about the time period, there hasn’t been original musical about the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. We say, it’s high time theatre artists create an authentic (and star-studded) Harlem Renaissance musical for the Great White Way. Here are 5 dream teams we’d like to see attempt an original musical on the subject:
Director: Robert O’Hara, Book: Robert O’Hara & Kirsten Childs, Music/Lyrics: Kirsten Childs
When it comes to wickedly witty hilarity, eye-popping visual razzle-dazzle and a narrative that veers on the darker side, look no further. In addition to being black intelligentsia, figures like Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, Bruce Nugent and Alain Locke were huge party animals. Wouldn’t it be cool to see that on the big stage?!
Director: George C. Wolfe, Book: Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Music/Lyrics: Jeanine Tesori
In 2003, Tony Kushner (Angels In America) partnered with Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Violet) and created the acclaimed Civil Rights-era musical Caroline, or Change under the direction of none other than George C. Wolfe. We say, let Wolfe and Tesori partner up with Pultizer Prize nominated playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins (Gloria, An Octoroon, Appropriate). Admit it, very few playwrigths deliver dialogue with such gusto.
Director: Diane Paulus Book: Suzan Lori-Parks Music/Lyrics: Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman
We admit it, it’s a weird combo. But oddly enough, it works. Tony winning director Diane Paulus (Pippin, Hair) previously collaborated with Pultizer Prize winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks (Topdog/Underdog) on The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess when it premiered on Broadway in 2012. Unafraid of spectacle and glamour, with the addition of Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman ( NBC’s “Smash,” Hairspray; South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), this could be the biggest sure-fire Broadway hit since… Hamilton. (Yeah, we said it).
Director: Liesl Tommy, Book: Lynn Nottage, Music/Lyrics: Henry Krieger & Tim Rice
Pairing one of the biggest rising talents, director Liesel Tommy (Eclipsed), with one of Pultizer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined) seems to be like a match made in theatre heaven. But two dramatic theatremakers need a dramatic songwriting team who can deliver showstoppers. So, why not pair them with Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls, Side Show) and Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Aladdin, The Lion King, Aida)? Imagine the ticket price!
Director: Kenny Leon/Bill T. Jones, Book: Katori Hall, Music/Lyrics: Stew and Heidi Rodewald
While the current American musical theatre panorama is transmogrifying into a more youth-driven and socially conscious arena, it is unclear of who will be the next major voices in theatre. That said, veteran director Kenny Leon’s work on “The Wiz Live!” made it clear that he’s one of the most underrated and effervescent directors working in theatre. Bill T. Jones (Fela!) proved he knows how to bring energy and aplomb to the stage. Katori Hall (The Mountaintop, The Hurt Village) writes with a dark magic that is perfect for this kind of theatrical exhibition. With music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange, The Total Bent) this could be an icon off-Broadway show and a Broadway hit.