Nr 465: Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978)

6 Mar

Ain’t Misbevavin’
1978: Broadway, 1 604 perfs.
1979: West End
1982: Tv-version
1988: Broadway Revival, 176 perfs.
1995: West End Revival

Book: Murray Horwitz, Richard Maltby, Jr.,
Music & Lyrics: Various composers and lyricists

The musical is a tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness, and ethnic pride, and takes its title from the 1929 Waller song ”Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It was a time when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out the new beat known as swing.
Five performers present an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect Waller’s view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play.

This is one swinging show. If you don’t start tapping your toes, snapping your fingers and break out in a goofy happy smile while listening to the cast recording you’re in serious trouble, my friend. Because this is an infectious, melodious, well sung, well arranged and overall brilliantly staged masterpiece of a show. Without a doubt one of the best, if not the best revue ever to be presented on Broadway. At least in my opinion.
Now, I must admit that I saw the original London production in 1979 and not the Broadway one, but both André DeShields and Charlayne Woodard from the Broadway show were in it – and it was a brilliant production. I was totally blown away.
Just the way they delivered the songs… They weren’t just singing the words they were telling a story, really telling it and not just singing beautiful notes (although they sang beautifully, all of them) and they were acting the songs. They made every song come to life and it was heaven to me. I hadn’t realized, till then, that you could deliver a song in this way, with so much passion, engaging storytelling and with total audience contact. I was sucked into the world of Fats Waller, his time and his music.
And another first for me was when André sang The Vipers Drag, lightning up a reefer on stage, slithering around, ”getting high” and at one point started to flirt with some girls on the first row and offering them a toke. When they reached for the joint he pulled it away from them with an evil smile and wagged his finger in a ”no, no” sign which had the entire audience screaming with laughter. I had never seen an actor interact with the audience that way before. I loved it. I wanted more of it and I always think of that moment when I’m on stage myself because that’s the kind of contact I want to have with the public too.
I was in my teens when I saw this show and it was one of my first visits to a musical all by myself and that was an adventure in it self.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret on February 8, 1978. It became such a smash hit that they decided to develop it into a full-scale production that opened on Broadway in may that same year.
The cast at the Manhattan Theatre Club included  Nell Carter, André DeShields, Ken Page, Armelia McQueen, and Irene Cara. Yep, that’s the same Irene Cara who went on to play ”Coco Hernandez” in the 1980 film Fame and recorded the film’s Academy Award and Golden Globe winning title song ”Fame”. She also sang and co-wrote the song ”Flashdance… What a Feeling” (from the 1983 film Flashdance), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1984. 
On Broadway Irene was replaced with Charlayne Woodard.

There is also a sixth very importend cast member in the production and that is the orchestrator Luther Henderson (1919 – 2003), who’s orchestrations and vocal arrangement are one of the resons why this is such a brilliant and joyful show. They are absolutely brilliant! And he appeared as the on stage pianist in the original production.
Luther served as orchestrator, arranger, and musical director on more than fifty Broadway musicals from Beggar’s Holiday (1946) to Jelly’s Last Jam (1992).

In 1995 there was a national tour of the show starring The Pointer Sisters. Although it never reached Broadway, as originally planned, a recording of highlights from the show was released.

The Broadway show won:
3 Tony Awards: Best musical, Featured Actress in a musical (Nell Carter) and Best Direction of a musical (Richard Maltby, Jr.).
3 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical, Actor and Actress in a musical (Ken Page and Nell Carter)
2 Theatre World Awards for Nell Carter and Armelia McQueen.
The Tv-version from 1982 won 2 Primetime Emmy Awards for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program for Nell Cater and André DeShields.

Reviews:
A joyous celebration. … This really is Fats Waller on Broadway. It is a memorial that breathes. It is a testament to a curious genius – one of the few people you seem to know from the memories of their recorded voice. … simply a Broadway show that you will never forget. And it is really Waller. It really is.
– Clive Barnes, New York Post

What whistles, hoots, throws off sparks and moves at about 180 miles an hour, even though it is continually stopped? Ain’t Misbehavin’.
– Richard Eder, New York Times

To put it as judiciously as possible, Ain’t Misbehavin’ has a first act that will knock your ears off and a second that will come back for the rest of you.
– Walter Kerr, Times

Since this is Broadway, the land of bristling microphones and loudspeakers by the carload, there is a tape deck and a pair of sound consoles at the rear of the theatre that look elaborate and complicated enough to send the show into space. But that’s just what the cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ does all by itself. Wow!
– Douglas Watt, Daily News

Videos:
At the Tony Awards
Nell Carter singing I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling
Lounging at the Waldorf
2018 Highlights reel
The Complete Tv-version of the show
Fats Waller sings Ain’t Misbehavin’

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