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Reunited in Voice : Grammy-Winning Sisters Return to Stage in Musical

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jeanette Hawes wanted to keep a low profile when she started attending Los Angeles Harbor College two years ago.

But her love of singing and performing drew Hawes to a theater class. And it wasn’t long before she decided to reveal a secret from her past.

Larry Heimgartner, chairman of the college’s theater arts department, discovered he had a Grammy winner as a student.

Hawes was one of three sisters in the rhythm and blues/pop singing group The Emotions. The trio won a Grammy in 1978 for Best Song of the Year for “Best of My Love.” The group had several other hit songs in the late 1970s and early ‘80s that sold millions of copies, including “Show Me How” and “Boogie Wonderland,” a song they sang with Earth, Wind and Fire.

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Despite the success and fame, the group stopped performing after the death of their father and manager, Joseph Hutchinson, in 1985. The breakup was amicable, with each sister pursuing her own interests and raising children during the past decade.

Hawes, 44, focused her energy on her son, now 9, who has a learning disability, and two other children, 21 and 17. The Torrance resident also acted in local plays.

Wanda Hutchinson, 43, devoted her time to her five children and W.W. Productions, a Los Angeles production company she owns with her husband. Sheila Hutchinson, 42, remained in the family’s native city of Chicago and kept busy with her daughter, now 8, appearances in commercials and preaching her faith door-to-door as a Jehovah’s Witness.

During their years apart, the sisters hoped that one day they would reunite and perform again. Now, thanks in part to Heimgartner, that wish has come true. They are having a reunion on stage, performing in an autobiographical musical, “Bigger Than Bubblegum,” at Harbor College’s theater.

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The chain of events leading to the group’s return to performing began while Hawes was appearing in a play at the college about a year ago. Sheila and Wanda attended the performance. After the show, the three sisters were reminiscing with Heimgartner, who later approached them with the idea about the musical.

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Sheila said she was surprised that any audience would be interested in their story. And she had always thought that musicals based on people’s lives were reserved for those who had died.

But she became intrigued by Heimgartner’s idea. “I know sometimes I’ve wondered about someone who used to be in the spotlight,” Sheila said. Heimgartner interviewed the women separately and then as a group. Based on those interviews and research, he wrote the 87-minute musical. Chuck Alvarez is the musical director for the show, which premiered Jan. 13 and continues through Feb. 5.

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Wanda, who like Jeanette has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1978, said she was skeptical at first about Heimgartner’s ability to write a story about them.

“When I first met Larry, I thought, ‘How can a cowboy from Idaho write about the lives of three women from a Chicago ghetto?’ ” she recalled. “Larry had never even heard of us. I said it couldn’t happen, but lo and behold, he came up with something that touched all of us.”

Heimgartner said that although he wasn’t familiar with their music, after listening to their stories, the idea about writing their story came to him like a familiar tune.

“Their story is a universal story,” he said. “It was sort of everybody’s story, the trials and tribulations of life and the ups and downs.”

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The Emotions were originally known as the Hutchinson Sunbeams. Their father later changed the name because he said his daughters could bring out every emotion in their fans through their music.

The title of the show also comes from the elder Hutchinson, who told his daughters that one day they would be bigger than bubble gum.

The musical spans their lives, including their decision to go their separate ways because they couldn’t agree on the direction of the group in the wake of their father’s death.

“My dad had been our manager,” Jeanette said. “When it came to the point that we had to decide who was going to do this and that, it didn’t happen. We never really had to do that before. This whole coming together has been therapy for us.”

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The show has attracted the likes of pop star Stevie Wonder and actor/director Robert Townsend to the 350-seat theater.

The sisters are enjoying their revival. “For us to have a place in history--that’s a favor of God,” Jeanette said. “He’s making a way for us now.”


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