The Apollo Theatre on West 125th Street, in the center of Harlem’s major business district, has always represented something much more than a venue for popular entertainment. As with the Palace in the heyday of vaudeville, if you played the Apollo successfully you had made it to the top. Over the course of much of the past century, the Apollo launched the careers of many great African-American artists from Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown to Michael Jackson and Lauryn Hill. Most of the giant jazzmen from Louis to Duke to Diz and Miles played there. So when the Apollo entered a long period of postwar decline leading to its closing at the end of the 1980s, more than a musical era ended; the closing symbolized the decline of Harlem itself as a vital, livable community, a decline it shared with the entire city.
Well, the good news is that the decline has been reversed and Harlem is back, both as a place to live and as a tourist destination. And as this recovery has accelerated (there’s even a Starbucks), many saw that the legendary Apollo (which in the interim had been designated a federal, state, and city landmark) had to be reanimated. A charitable foundation was established to enable physical and artistic reclamation. The goal was dual: not only to resurrect the major African-American entertainment venue, but also to create an institution that could play a major community role.
The theater reopened earlier this year with individual performances by Wynton Marsalis and Whoopi Goldberg. Then someone had a bright new idea. As well as booking acts for single performances or short runs, why not offer something the Apollo had never offered before? How about a musical entertainment in the Broadway tradition that would have an open-ended run, a musical or revue that would keep the theater tourists coming up to Harlem? To accomplish this without eliminating popular amateur night and concert performances, the will play only from Saturday through Monday, but seven times on those three days, thus freeing mid-week for other offerings.
Given Harlem’s incredible historical and musical inheritance there was no shortage of material with which to create a celebration of its centrality in African-American– indeed, all American culture. Who to shape the legacy into a piece at once edifying and entertaining? The choice seemed obvious: George C. Wolfe, the current artistic director of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, fresh from his recent Broadway successes Elaine Stritch At Liberty and Topdog/Underdog, had already distinguished himself in creating much the kind of piece now demanded. An experienced Broadway veteran with ten shows in ten years, Wolfe in 1996 together with collaborator Savion Glover had great success with the musical Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk in which African-American history– particularly its dark side– was chronicled through the history of rhythm (particularly tap dancing) and blues. In one scene a lynching victim tap danced his own demise.
Obviously, a less angry and provocative piece was now called for, but the modus operandi could remain the same: a chronology of significant events and personages in Black history presented either through popular music of the various periods or by modern musical evocations. Wolfe remarked that his aim in Harlem Song was "to make a populist piece . . .that is very theatrical and entertaining and includes the texture of historical events." The ambitious goal was to showcase Harlem’s musical, dance, and literary contributions over the course of a century and in so doing to demonstrate the regenerative power of community.
On a spare, two-level set designed for ease of assembly and disassembly, the musical numbers unroll. Overhead two screens appear and disappear; they carry the production’s major visual information: vintage photographs of people and events, maps, drawings, and contemporary filmed testimonials and commentary by long-time Harlem residents (like the testimony of oldtimers in Warren Beatty’s film Reds). This visual montage is done with consummate professionalism, and owes much to the kind of visualizations which accompanied the television productions of Anna Deavere Smith pieces that Wolfe directed.
Upstage on the lower level sits a small jazz ensemble, sometimes visible, sometimes not. As Harlem Song begins, a languid piano evokes the world of ragtime; in a widening iris, framed in silhouette, a pair of stylish dancers recreate the elegant moves of that era. Very soon (the entire piece plays an intermissionless 90 minutes) we move through the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the misery of the Great Depression, the influx of Southerners and Hispanics (hence "Take the A Train" in Spanish), the postwar cycle of hope and despair, the musical rebellion of Bop, the fury of the post-assassination 1960s– ending, however, on a contemporary upbeat, suggestive of rebirth. At each step along the journey the historical period is evoked through song: occasionally a well-known standard like Duke Ellington’s "Drop Me Off in Harlem," but usually a less known but worth knowing period piece like Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s amusing "Shakin’ the African," or Count Basie and Richard Wright’s "King Joe" in homage to the great boxing idol.
To fill out perceived gaps or to underline a particular point or mood, musical supervisors Zane Mark and Daryl Waters collaborate with lyricist Wolfe to create new songs to encapsulate an era ("Doin’ the Niggerati Rag").
Obviously, given the the broadness of this canvas one can argue with Wolfe’s historical and musical choices. There are so many good Harlem songs, why write new ones without the musical authority of the old? Certain eras are more effectively brought to life than others. The 1920s, it is no surprise, comes off best with its evocation of the vibrant club scene which had the trampy downtowners coming up to Harlem’s Cotton Club and Small’s Paradise in ermine and pearls. And a Bessie Smith style double-entendre song about a (Jack)ass "For Sale" brings the house down lustily.
Wolfe has assembled a fine 14-member ensemble of players. The hilarious "For Sale" number is delivered majestically by veteran B.J. Crosby who distinguished herself in another popular Black musical offering, Smokey Joe’s Cafe. There are several other veteran performers, but essentially this is a young company. And can they move! A rent party number in which a young man and a young women court through dance competition still yields vibrations.
Wolfe hits his ambitious mark and achieves what he wanted to achieve. The show is first and foremost a musically rich crowd pleaser. But it never stints its pedagogic role. All right class, identify that fat man in an admiral’s outfit, that angry, goodlooking guy with the glasses and crewcut, that dapper dude with the wavy hair and Clark Gable moustache. If you answered Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Adam Clayton Powell you can enjoy the music guiltlessly.