Ellington’s ‘Jump for Joy’ Returns After 50 Years : Stage: Chicago company revives musical about black life that opened in L.A. in ’41, then was lost to World War II.
It’s got singing, dancing, a sparkling Duke Ellington score and a history marred by racism and violence.
Fifty years after “Jump for Joy” was last seen on a theatrical stage, a small theater company in Chicago has lovingly revived the long-lost musical about black life in America, and viewers are cheering.
“It’s a jazz historian’s dream come true,” said Richard Wang, an Ellington scholar who helped reconstruct the revue from scattered pieces of sheet music, a handful of recordings and Ellington’s own cryptic notes.
“This is the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done,” said Wang, a music professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
It may get there yet if things work out as Arlene Crewdson, artistic director of Pegasus Players, hopes. After extending its initial two-month run at the performing arts center of a North Side college, Crewdson said she has lined up investors interested in keeping “Jump for Joy” alive after it closes here Jan. 5: “There’s definitely national interest.”
Ellington and his collaborators had Broadway in mind when they created the show. But their immediate target was the then-common characterization on stage and film of blacks as shuffling, superstitious stereotypes.
The original production of “Jump for Joy” opened in July, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles with an all-black cast. Each of its 30 songs and sketches dealt with some aspect of African-American culture, from the sweet love song, “The Brown Skin Gal in the Calico Gown,” to the deceptively upbeat “Passport From Georgia,” with its references to lynching and the Ku Klux Klan.
“Passport” was temporarily yanked from the show after the young man who sang it received threatening messages, according to Sid Kuller, an 81-year-old Hollywood writer who penned lyrics for 11 of the show’s songs.
Kuller said he and others associated with the musical also received crank calls and threats. One cast member was beaten, according to Ellington historian Tricia Willard.
The racist backlash did not deter Ellington, Kuller and the show’s many other creators. Two days after pulling “Passport,” they put it back in, where it stayed until “Jump for Joy” closed in L.A. in late September, Kuller said.
He said three months was a successful run at the time. Plans for a national tour leading to Broadway were dropped after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and many cast members were drafted.
Kuller said that of all the material he has written for the stage, television and films, he is proudest of “Jump for Joy.”
“I place it on the top of the list because somebody had to make the statement and we made it and at the time it was dangerous,” he said.
By the time the war ended, the show’s creators had moved on to other projects and taken their “Jump for Joy” material with them. Some of the half-dozen songs that had been recorded, including “I Got It Bad,” “Jump for Joy,” “C-Jam Blues” and “Rocks in My Bed,” became standards. But many were lost and others survived only among Ellington’s papers or “lead sheets” at EMI Music.
Kuller said he updated some of his “Jump for Joy” material for a Florida nightclub revival of selected songs in the 1950s. But he didn’t get fired up about the show again until last year when Crewdson, who had learned about “Jump for Joy” from Ellington experts in Chicago, approached Kuller about a possible Pegasus Players revival.
While Kuller wrote new lyrics such as “Uncle Tom’s cabin is a condo now” to update the show, a group of Ellington scholars from Chicago and Canada re-created some orchestral arrangements from lead sheets and Ellington papers owned by the Smithsonian.
The Pegasus production contains 20 songs and sketches and is backed by a 15-piece, on-stage orchestra. It took one year and $150,000 to put together, making it the costliest (and most successful) production Pegasus has ever mounted, Crewdson said.
“Many young black people have no idea what things were like in that period,” choreograph Joel Hall said. “Duke Ellington is relevant to any time.”