By SHARON EBERSON
Jazz legend Billy Strayhorn’s story is a Pittsburgh story, in his lifetime and even now, when he is being celebrated with a world-premiere biomusical in the heart of the city’s Cultural District.
Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For, debuting this week at Pittsburgh Public Theater, is the result of a tapestry of friends and connections forged in local neighborhoods, schools and theaters.
It was another Billy – the award-winning multihyphenate artist and Pittsburgh native Billy Porter – who was a catalyst for bringing together a creative team to die for.
The journey to Something to Live For began when playwright Rob Zellers (“The Chief”) was asked to review a biography of Strayhorn’s famous collaborator, Duke Ellington.
The chapter on Strayhorn is what grabbed Zellers, and inspired him to pursue the idea of a biodrama featuring Strayhorn’s music.
“I took the idea to [producer] Steven Tabakin, an old friend who was born and raised in Point Breeze. And he immediately said, ‘Let’s talk to Billy Porter,’ because Steven went to junior high and high school with him, and I knew Billy since he was in high school.”
Porter wanted to direct the story of Strayhorn, the Black, gay PIttsburgher who was not only one of the greats of jazz, but also a civil rights activist and close friend of the Rev. Martin Luthor King Jr.
“That’s when Billy’s career really blew up, and he had to back away,” Zellers recalled. “So he introduced us to Kent.”
That first meeting was in the office of Kent Gash – like Porter, a Carnegie Mellon alum, an acclaimed director and, among the many hats he wears, the founding director of Tisch School of the Arts’ New Studio and artistic director of The Acting Company in New York City.
The credit for the biomusical would go on to read: Written by Rob Zellers, with Kent Gash.”
“Kent has been invaluable,” Zellers said. “The project really took off when he agreed to do it, and that’s already been two, three years ago – these things do take time.”
For Gash, the subject is a perfect melding of his own musical background and career in theater. He grew up in a house where legendary jazz musicians were regular guests.
“My parents were friends with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown and Dizzy Gillespie and Ed Thigpen. And at the time, as kids, we were just like, ‘Oh, these are just more of my parents’ friends.”
Gash began playing piano at age 8, in a family where there was “a great love and appreciation of jazz,” he said. “So I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always been aware of its historic significance. Jazz and musical theater are really the only two original art forms that America can claim.”
For Gash, bringing jazz and musical theater together in telling Billy Strayhorn’s story clicked immediately. It’s an opportunity to celebrate his music in a way that honors his hidden contributions.
“There was so much that many people assumed had been written by Duke,” Gash said, adding that they co-authored many works. “But Duke also had an orchestra to maintain. And when you’re the frontman, you have to get out there and hustle. His output was extraordinary, too, but without question, some of Billy’s contributions inadvertently, I think, got sort of lost in the vagaries of history and how these things end up being remembered. So it’s wonderful to be able to tell Billy’s story in a city that was so seminal to his development, and that was such a big part of his life. So it’s really meaningful.”
Pittsburgh has embraced Strayhorn’s contributions before, including the East Liberty Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, and choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s StrayLifeLushHorn for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Something to Live For, with 22-year-old jazz sensation Matthew Whitaker as music director, takes a deep dive into Strayhorn’s music, his life and his relationships.
Zellers, whose appreciation of jazz was nurtured by his mother’s love of the genre, would listen to her sing along as records played. The future writer also was fascinated by the liner notes on old album jackets.
“So I brought that background to this. I also brought the background of knowing that, Pittsburgh has some really fascinating human beings in our history. And Art Rooney [subject of The Chief], of course, is one of them. And then I thought, literally, Billy’s story is perfect as a whole other side of Pittsburgh, and I would really like to, to work on this.”
Zellers took into consideration that he is a straight, white man, working on the story of a gay Black man.
“I mean, I knew what I was getting into, but I was driven though, as I said, by my love for the character, my love for the music, my love for Pittsburgh, and all things Pittsburgh history,” Zellers said. “And of course, like I did with Art Rooney as the subject matter, I enter into it deadly serious, with honesty. You know, honesty is the thing you want to respect. That’s what Sala Udin said to me on opening night of The Chief, and, we’re old friends, and he said that in a very loving way.”
Speaking during the rehearsal process, the playwright had been sitting in, taking notes. Hearing Whitaker play a song that wasn’t in the show inspired Zellers to replace a song he had initially used.
While he was continuing to observe the process, he said, ‘Kent has brought his sensibility as a gay black man to this project. I mean, he’s our leader – it’s his show now. And I couldn’t think of a better director in American theater right now. He’s the perfect match for this show.”
‘I believe very much in the authenticity of voices and in Black artists telling the stories of Black lives,” Gash said. “I really feel it’s incredibly important. And I also feel it’s incredibly important that LGBTQIA artists, members of the gay community, of the queer community, also have a real significant and prominent voice in the telling of our stories. Because so many of those stories are being erased or are being made unavailable to people.”
The director went on to say how important a story such as Strayhorn’s, about the importance of imparting stories of ‘triumphant, heroic, really important figures in our culture that happened to be black and happened to be queer and lived extraordinary lives and contributed so much to the world.”
When he met Zellers and Tabakin, Gash could sense that this was a collaboration that would work.
“I felt that both of them were extremely honest, that their hearts were very much in the right place and were really committed to getting this right, which not everybody is,” Gash said. “There’s some people who are producing stories about Black life who are not of the culture. And I said to them, ‘I need you to understand that if something doesn’t ring true to me or if I don’t believe in it as a member of the many communities that intersect in this man’s story, if I don’t feel we’re being honest about it and delineating it the way it might have gone down and in an authentic voice, then I’m not going to be a part of it.’ ’’
Another way the collaboration took hold was Tabakin suggesting Whitaker as music director. In 2022, Tabakin had produced the documentary short, Matthew Whitaker: About Tomorrow, and knew of the pianist’s interest in developing a musical. Another vote for Whitaker came from Michael McElroy, the founder of Broadway Inspirational Voices who is head of the music theater training program that Gash founded and still runs at NYU. He also is a fellow CMU grad – another link in the Pittsburgh chain.
“When Steven said, ‘What about Matthew Whitaker?’ when we were talking musical directors, I thought, actually, that’s a brilliant idea because yes, this is Matthew’s first time being musical director of a piece of musical theater like this. But like Billy Strayhorn, Matthew is a singular genius. Everything about him is musical.”
Whitaker conducts his arrangements and plays piano and organ with a nine-piece group that combines his band with Pittsburgh musicians. Orchestrations are by Tony-winner Bruce Coughlin (The Light in the Piazza).
“He is a magical person to be in the presence of,” Gash said of Whitaker. “I hope that this piece, in addition to the piece having a long life and continuing to grow and all of us continuing to work on it, I also hope to do other musical theater work with Matthew. He’s a great voice to have working in the theater because he’s fearless about innovation. And we need that right now.”
Members of the creative team also include choreographer Dell Howlett (Broadway’s Paradise Square) and Emmy Award-winning scenic designer Jason Sherwood.
The cast is led by Obie Award winner Darius de Haas, a Broadway veteran and the voice of Shy Baldwin on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Amazon series, portraying Billy Strayhorn. Castmates include J.D. Mollison as Duke Ellington, with Charl Brown as Aaron Bridgers, Keziah John-Paul in dual roles as Lillian Strayhorn and Ivie Anderson, Richard McBride as Mercer Ellington, Joseph McGranaghan as Lennie Hayton, and Arielle Roberts as both Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.
As the musical takes to the stage, Zellers has a couple of simple goals that have grown over from the time he read a chapter about Billy Strayhorn, in a book about Duke Ellington, and decided this was a Pittsburgh story that needed to be told.
For one, he hopes appreciation for the music will be sparked in people who don’t get “how beautiful jazz is.”
The other goal jibes with his “education gene,” put to use during the 28 years he spent as education director at Pittsburgh Public Theater, now home to Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.
“I guess the goal is sharing,” Zellers said. “I want to share this story and for there to be recognition, for people to come out and go, ‘Oh, Billy Strayhorn. Wow. I didn’t know that.’ ’’
O’REILLY THEATER LOBBY DISPLAY
Members of Billy Strayhorn’s family were involved in creating the Pittsburgh Public Theater production. They have provided memorabilia from his life, on display in a glass case in the O’Reilly Theater lobby, that includes Strayhorn’s leather briefcase.
TICKETS AND DETAILSThe Pittsburgh Public Theater world premiere of Billy Strayhorn: Something to Love For, is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through October 11, 2023. Tickets: visit https://ppt.org/production/87809/billy-strayhorn-something-to-live-for or call 412-316-1600. For more information, visit the website https://www.strayhornmusical.com/.
A QUICK LOOK AT A LUSH LIFE: BILLY STRAYHORN
Billy Strayhorn was born in 1915 in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Pittsburgh and spent much of his childhood going back and forth between Homewood and his grandmother’s house in North Carolina. A Westinghouse High School alum who attended the Pittsburgh Music Institute, he went on to compose such seminal jazz works as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Lush Life” and “Satin Doll.” At the age of 19, he impressed the band leader Duke Ellington, and they began a decades-long fruitful collaboration, described by the Duke as: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” With Ellington as the frontman of his popular orchestra, he often overshadowed Strayhorn and his contributions. Together, they wrote Jump for Joy, a social commentary on racism in America presented as a musical revue. Lena Horne called Strayhorn, her close friend and vocal coach, “the love of my life,” despite the fact that Strayhorn was openly gay to his friends and colleagues. A civil rights activist and confidante to The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Strayhorn composed “My People,” dedicated to King. Strayhorn died as a result of complications of esophageal cancer on May 31, 1967.