'After Midnight,' And The Cotton Club Is Swinging Again The legendary Harlem nightclub and the artists and music it's synonymous with are being celebrated in a new Broadway revue. Jeff Lunden talks to cast members and the creators about the pleasures and perils of paying homage to a place with a problematic history.

'After Midnight,' And The Cotton Club Is Swinging Again

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The Broadway revue "After Midnight" celebrates the music and honors the performers of Harlem's legendary Cotton Club. Jeff Lunden reports on the musical and the history.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: From the early 1920s to 1940, the Cotton Club was the showplace for African-American performers in New York. Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers, are just a few of the artists whose work is interpreted in "After Midnight."


LUNDEN: New York University History Professor David Levering Lewis, author of "When Harlem Was In Vogue," thinks the show does a pretty good job.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: I thought it captured the flavor of what would have been one night - the best ever - at the Cotton Club.

LUNDEN: "After Midnight" began as a collaboration between Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Jack Viertel, artistic director of Encores, an organization that puts on concert versions of old musicals. Viertel says the show came about...

JACK VIERTEL: Largely because I have a fixation with Harold Arlen who, early his career, wrote songs for the Cotton Club. And Wynton has a lifelong obsession with Duke Ellington. And while Arlen was writing songs for the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington was the house band at the Cotton Club.

LUNDEN: Viertel and Marsalis drew on old photographs, YouTube videos and classic recordings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello, everybody. Welcome to our famous Cotton Club. It's great to see so many friends here tonight, enjoying themselves in spite of the cover charge. If you can spare a minute from your merrymaking, I'd like to have the pleasure of introducing the greatest living master of jungle music, the rip-roaring harmony hound, none other than Duke Ellington.


LUNDEN: The Cotton Club was a mob joint, owned by a Chicago gangster named Owney Madden, as a way to sell booze at inflated prices, during Prohibition. While it was located on Lenox Avenue, in the heart of Harlem, it was open to whites only, says historian David Levering Lewis.

LEWIS: As everyone knows, it was infamously racially-exclusive. W.C. Handy wished to go one evening to The Cotton Club and he was turned away. And he could hear his music being performed.

LUNDEN: And that gives actor Dulé Hill pause.

: As much as we try, I don't think we'll ever really understand what that felt like; to come on the stage and to be so fabulous, and to be so amazing, and to be so elegant and classy, but not be able to sit down.

LUNDEN: Hill, who's best known for his television roles in "The West Wing" and "Psych," serves as master of ceremonies reciting poetry by Langston Hughes, as well as singing and dancing.


LUNDEN: The original Cotton Club revues featured some offensive racial stereotyping, which the show consciously avoids says Jack Viertel.

VIERTEL: In the end, I think we decided that one of the services we could do for the artists who created the work originally, was to give them an opportunity to be liberated from that circumstance. We didn't think it would serve them or our current cast, or musicians to try to sort of circumvent the joy of the art with the shame of the social reality; which continues in this country in various ways, up to this very day.

LUNDEN: "After Midnight" is not trying to white-wash history, says actor Dulé Hill.

: It's not that we're brushing it underneath the rug and saying: Oh no; don't pay any attention to that. No, that informs everything we're doing. But we're choosing to celebrate. And life is all about choice and so is art.

LUNDEN: Like the Cotton Club revues, "After Midnight" features a rotating group of guest stars. Fantasia Barrino, the "American Idol "winner, opened the show.

FANTASIA BARRINO: (Singing) Gather your coat and gather your hat. Leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street...

LUNDEN: She's being followed by Canadian crooner K.D. Lang. Having a white headliner is not without precedent, says the show's director and choreographer Warren Carlyle.

WARREN CARLYLE: You know, the Cotton Club in its heyday had this great tradition of these Sunday night guest spots where, you know, Judy Garland performed. There were many, many different performers. All races performed.

LUNDEN: K.D. Lang says she's excited about making her Broadway debut singing standards, like "Stormy Weather" in the original big band arrangements. But she's also intrigued by one of the lesser known tunes, "Zah Zuh Zaz."

CAB CALLOWAY: (Singing) Now, here's a very entrancing phrase. It will put you in a daze. To me it don't mean a thing but it's got a very peculiar swing. Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay. Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay...

K.D. LANG: You know, I think I will probably tap into my early country days, when I would just have a lot of kinetic energy and a lot of fun with music. Because when I look at the YouTube's of Cab Calloway performing the song, he was, like a nut.

CALLOWAY: (Singing) Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay. Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay. Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay. Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay...

LUNDEN: While Professor David Levering Lewis admires "After Midnight," he says we should never forget the era it celebrates.

LEWIS: So to say that "After Midnight" is not a sociological exposition is, I think, true and appropriate but not inauthentic. I think even if some in the audience would remember that we couldn't go to the Cotton Club...


LEWIS: ...even if we were W. C. Handy.


LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.


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