Jeffrey Polk, director of the new Pasadena Playhouse production of “Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” knows why the show has been successful since it bowed in 1994. “The strength,” he declares, “is in the music itself. Those songs are part of the fabric of America. I grew up in San Bernardino and when my mother had the radio on, I'd hear their songs. That's why I love this show: It's like watching what we used to hear on the radio.”
Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller crafted a body of work that resulted in some of the best and most notable tunes for Elvis Presley (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”), the Drifters (“Dance With Me”), Wilbert Harrison (“Kansas City”), Chuck Jackson (“I Keep Forgettin'”), Peggy Lee (“I'm a Woman”), Ben E. King (“Spanish Harlem”), and virtually everything recorded by the Coasters. Leiber & Stoller had a firm grip on vernacular black American music that imparted authenticity to the songs. As the late Coaster Carl Gardner noted, “I used to say, ‘They know my culture better than I do. How can they do that?'”
When the stage revue “Smokey Joe” premiered, it wasn't clear if audiences would embrace a staging of songs by lyricist Leiber and composer Stoller. After all, this was a body of work that predated the Beatles and Motown — and though layered with sardonic observation, comedy and romance, the tunes belonged to a far more innocent era. But they were also songs that told stories with vivid figures. A revue populated by song characters Charlie Brown, Poison Ivy, Don Juan, D.W. Washburne and others was almost inevitable.
In 1995, Jerry Leiber (who died in 2011) and Mike Stoller spoke about their songs and the principals that inhabit them at their Sunset Boulevard office. “The characters in the stories are from radio — literally,” Leiber claimed then. “They were not made up: The Shadow, Bulldog Drummond; once in awhile you get an unnamed Mountie in there.”
Stoller elaborated: “Early movies, to some degree, but mostly radio — comedy shows, mystery shows to some degree.”
Few pop songs depend on split-second timing the way the Coasters' tunes do. While the show is fast-paced, the versatile and talented cast of nine honors those time considerations.
“Smokey Joe” has since conquered Broadway and toured the world in repertory. It should be noted that the success of “Smokey Joe” gave birth to the repertory musical, in turn begetting musicals for Abba (“Mama Mia”), the Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”) and others.
Polk's history with the show is long. He unsuccessfully auditioned for the first production. “I didn't understand the caliber of what they wanted,” Polk says. “But when I saw the show, then I understood immediately.”
Polk not only performed subsequently in the show, he has directed several productions. In addition, Stoller and his wife, pianist/harpist Corky Hale, have become close friends of Polk's. “They're like my mother and father,” he claims. “I call them at least once a week.”
Audiences will see some new turns that include handsprings from some of the males and a fine dance en pointe by Kyra Little Da Costa that accompanies “Spanish Harlem.”
Los Angeles author David Ritz, Leiber & Stoller's biographer, doesn't see the songs as part of the Great American Songbook.
“That body of music was mostly made by Jews like George Gershwin and a few Gentiles like Cole Porter,” Ritz points out. “There's very little of that kind of romance in Leiber & Stoller; I don't think Michael Buble will be singing ‘Poison Ivy' any time soon. Jerry and Mike came from rhythm and blues; their songs were a great extension of Louis Jordan, Percy Mayfield and, in his own way, Chuck Berry. The songs are full of humor and irony, and they're endlessly entertaining. They kind of took the blues and stood it on its head.”
What: “Smokey Joe's Café”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: Through Oct. 13.
More info: (626) 568-3665, pasadenaplayhouse.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.