Darius de Haas Will Portray Billy Strayhorn in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s World Premiere Biomusical ‘Something to Live For’


You may know Darius de Haas as the singing voice of Shy Baldwin on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but musical theater fans know him as an accomplished Broadway artist. Soon, you will get to know him as a local jazz legend, courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s world premiere musical Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.

Darius de Hass stars as Billy Strayhorn (Images courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater)

De Haas will portray Pittsburgh native Strayhorn, J.D. Mollison (Broadway’s Les Miserable) will play Duke Ellington and previously announced music director Matthew Whitaker will lead a nine-piece band in casting and other news announced by the Public on Monday, July 17.

Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For, with a producing team that includes Billy Porter, kicks off Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 2023/24 season September 19-October 8 at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown. The new jazz musical features a book by Rob Zellers (The Chief) with director Kent Gash (Paradise Blue, City Theatre) and music and lyrics by Strayhorn, the international jazz artist whose works include standards such as Take the ‘A’ Train, Something to Live For, Day Dream and Lush Life. 

J.D. Mollison will play Duke Ellington.

After high school, Strayhorn left Pittsburgh for Harlem and joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the start of their 30-year collaboration. Strayhorn was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and a personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr. According to his Smithsonian Institution biography, “Although his work was renowned throughout the musical community … he often did not get the credit he deserved from the public. Strayhorn died at age 51, as result of complications of esophageal cancer, on May 31, 1967.

“The Black community of Pittsburgh (the Hill, Smoketown …) has nurtured some of our country’s greatest musicians, entertainers and artists. From August Wilson to Lena Horne, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Eckstine and Billy Porter. Billy Strayhorn: Something To Live For dramatizes the story of one of the greatest musical innovators and singular stylists of the last century, the one and only Billy Strayhorn,” Gash said in a statement. “Billy Strayhorn’s body of work, particularly with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, became the International Gold Standard of America’s greatest cultural contribution – jazz.  Forged in the Steel City and flourishing in the Harlem Renaissance, Billy Strayhorn’s life is a surprising, timeless and heroic behind-the-scenes saga of Black and Queer excellence that burns as brilliantly and as briefly as a comet. This is an inspiring story that belongs to everyone, and it’s an honor to bring the Billy Strayhorn wit, humor, soul and swinging genius back home to the Pittsburgh community where it belongs.”

Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For creative team includes, from left, director/co-writer Kent Gash, writer Rob Zellers and music director/conductor/musician Matthew Whitaker.

Writer Zellers added, “This is a Pittsburgh origins story that not many people are aware of. Strayhorn’s life began in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His gift for composing, arranging and performing jazz took him from Westinghouse High School to New York City at the pinnacle of American jazz music. Despite his decades-long partnership with Duke Ellington where he wrote music and lyrics for some of the band’s best known work, he never received the recognition he rightly deserved.”

Whitaker, an internationally recognized 22-year-old jazz pianist and composer, began teaching himself how to play at 9 years old. He was named an official Yamaha Artist at 15 years old. His compositions and performances have won awards, including two ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Awards. He has been profiled on 60 Minutes, and his journey to become a working film composer and musical director was captured in the New York Emmy-nominated 2022 documentary film Matthew Whitaker: About Tomorrow.  

Arrangements are by Whitaker, who also conducts and plays piano and organ. Orchestrations are by Tony Award-winner Bruce Coughlin.

De Haas previously recorded his interpretations of Strayhorn’s works in “Day Dream – Variations on Strayhorn.” Additional casting announced Monday includes Charl Brown as “one of Strayhorn’s true loves, Aaron Bridgers. Brown was a best featured actor Tony nominee for his role as Smokey Robinson in Motown: The Musical. 

Clockwise from top left: Arielle Roberts, Charl Brown, Joseph McGranaghan, Kezia John-Paul, Saige Smith, Joseph Robert Fedore,
Tracy Anthony Dunbar, Taylor C. Colllier.

Keziah John-Paul (Broadway’s The Book of Mormon) will play Lillian Strayhorn and jazz singer Ivie Anderson, while New York-based actor and singer Arielle Roberts will portray Lena Horne and Billie HolidayRichard McBride (Starveling in Pittsburgh Public’s 2023 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem) will be seen as Mercer Ellington; and Joseph McGranaghan (The Public’s Barefoot In The Park) plays Horne’s husband, Lennie Hayton, among other roles; with Saige Smith and Joseph Fedore join the ensemble as understudies. The musical also will feature concert dancers Tracy Dunbar and Taylor Collier.

Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For is presented by special arrangement with Swee Pea LLC (Steven Tabakin, lead producer). 


Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For runs for 21 performances from September 19 to October 8 at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown. Visit www.ppt.org/strayhorn or call  412-316-1600. 

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