Sherman Yellen on ‘Josephine Tonight’

I fell in love with Sherman Yellen’s musical The Rothschilds when I was a kid growing up in Buffalo, NY. I was thrilled when I heard that his musical Josephine Tonight was about to open at MetroStage, and I was hoping to bump into him there and to talk to him about one of my favorite musicals of the 70s. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Sherman Yellen

But what did happen was meeting Sherman on facebook. Since Josephine Tonight opened at MetroStage the last week in January, we have been facebooking back and forth. During a wonderful phone conversation two days ago, I hinted to Sheldon how nice it would be if he could write a short article about his journey of trying to get Josephine Tonight on the stage, the changes he has made to the show, and his thoughts about the MetroStage production.

When I opened my email this morning – I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sherman Yellen had sent me this article to share with you:

“When Carolyn Griffin, the Artistic Director of MetroStage decided to produce Josephine Tonight, as the librettist/lyricist I was very pleased but equally cautious. This was a musical I had totally revised after its very successful Chicago studio production at Theatre Building Chicago in ’06, and there is the old saying “why mess with success?” My new version had never gone from page to stage. The toughest critic in Chicago, Hedy Weiss of The Chicago Sun Times” had written of this show in its original version that with its great music and “sexy, exuberant style, Josephine Tonight has hit written all over it.” But for its surviving author, me, something was missing, and it wasn’t the hit factor. What was missing was a style that matched its subject – that hand in glove style that allows an audience to feel that they are seeing something altogether new, yet allows them to be absolutely comfortable because it feels so right: taking a tradition and putting a new face on it.

Aisha de Haas (Big Bertha Smith). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I knew that I was working in the showbiz bio form of Funny Girl and Gypsy – but I wanted our show to be about more than the rise of a star from obscurity to success – I wanted it to be a story of America as well, with all its problems for African Americans in the years that Josephine rose from dancing in the streets of East St. Louis for pennies – to becoming the legend of the Jazz Age in Paris, six short years from 1919 to 1925. Keeping that delicate balance between a rousing entertainment and a probing look at the world we depicted would not be easy.

First, there was the challenge of having originally written a show in which the title character was overwhelmed by the secondary lead who played her mother Carrie, and mentor Big Bertha Smith, in a dual role. This worked in Gypsy, but we were not trying to write a show about a stage mother’s struggle with her daughter and with her own ambition, this was a show about the iconic Josephine Baker as a girl.

Wally Harper

When Wally Harper, my composer, was alive, and we were working with the great Lillias White for a festival presentation of this show, we wrote (tossing modesty aside) at least four great ballads for Lillias (one of which she sang at Wally’s memorial service), as compared to the one excellent ballad (“Cinderella Me”) that we had for Josephine. Ballads allow for a look into the inner life of a character, and Josephine was short changed in our original presentation. The focus shifted from the young girl whose development as a woman and as an artist this musical was supposed to be about, to the older woman, and it stayed there. It was no wonder that Monique Whittington – who played the dual role in Chicago – won the Joseph Jefferson Award for her brilliant performance in it. She was a great musical artist, but she had all the best material to support her performance.

What I needed was more Josephine, and I meant not just more songs but songs that help define the title character in all her complexity, her driving ambition,  yet her capacity for love and tenderness, and ultimately her strength and her idealism. After writing a fresh set of lyrics I turned to Chicago Musical Director Jon Steinhagen, a composer in his own right, and we came up with “Never Say Never to Josie,” a defining song that covered her ambition – and I took a song that Wally Harper and I had put aside, “Isn’t She?” and brought it into the show, one that revealed the need for love that our heroine had. These together with a few more songs were able to shift focus to our title character, although the ballads for Carrie/Bertha remained standouts through the show.

James T. Lane (Eddie) and Zurin Villanueva (Josephine Baker). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

After our Chicago outing – not a full production – there was a small production of the show in an African American community theatre in California. It was under-rehearsed by its mortally ill director, who would tragically die a few days after the opening, but in its integrated cast there were a few African American actors playing Caucasian roles, and I found that perfectly credible. Even in this embarrassingly under-rehearsed performance I saw what I needed for my show’s future, an entirely African American cast to play the many roles, and from this grew the idea of compressing it into a five member cast, which being smaller somehow seemed much larger in its effect to me.

The first producer in New York who wished to do the show, and offered a Broadway plan, insisted that I restore it to the mixed race cast that had gotten those great Chicago reviews. I refused, knowing how wrong that producer was, and feeling that I was now on the right path for this musical. We parted company. And Josephine Tonight in its present form has gone forward as I wanted it to be, and as I believe Wally Harper would have wished it to be. His heir, Allan Gruet, has been a great support to me during the entire process of recreating the show.

Zurin Villanueva (Josephine Baker). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In Alexandria we had Maurice Hines to brilliantly realize the dance elements as they had never been done before, and with Mel Johnson Jr. as his assistant, and a hugely talented cast, equal to any I’ve seen on a Broadway stage, Josephine Tonight was finally launched into the world as I had always hoped it would be – with purpose and panache – an entertainment that didn’t stop entertaining even as it revealed some painful parts of America’s past, and the fullness of Josephine’s early life. I was happy – but still thinking about how we could make it better in its next production.

What most people don’t realize is that a musical is forever a work in progress.  It only ends when the last of its creators end – and I hope to be around for several more changes in this musical I dearly love.

Editor’s Note: Josephine Tonight will have its next showing in late April at the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe in Sarasota, Florida, under the title Blackbird. Sherman Yellen’s memoir about a boy growing up in New York City in the 1930′s and 40′s is to be published by Martin Sustainable Press as Spotless later this year.

6 year-old Sherman Yellen, and the cover of 'Spotless.'

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the musical The Rothschilds with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock. Other musical work includes his libretto for his musical comedy Lucky in the Rain at Goodspeed Musicals; his book and lyrics for Say Yes, a/k/a This Fair World, with music by Wally Harper (Berkshire Theatre Festival, STAGES 2003); and Josephine Tonight! his final work with the late composer Harper, with additional music by Jon Steinhagen (Theatre Building Chicago, 2006). Other plays include Strangers (Broadway); Oh Calcutta! and December Fools (Off-Broadway) and Budapest. As a screenwriter Sherman has won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for the PBS The Adams Chronicles and later for An Early Frost. He is a frequent contributor of social commentary and political essays to The Huffington Post.

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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.