By SHARON EBERSON
In a full-circle, overdue moment, the words “Hi, I’m Billy Strayhorn,” are at last being said on a Pittsburgh stage. Conjuring the late jazz genius is Darius de Haas, kicking off a tour-de-force performance and immediately opening the floodgates of song, dance and history in the exuberant, celebratory Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater world premiere had its official opening – the fourth performance ever – at the O’Reilly Theater on Saturday.
Something to Live For illuminates the classically trained, Homewood-raised Strayhorn’s life as an out, gay Black man, from his impoverished childhood to Westinghouse High School to his career as an innovator in the world of jazz, when he was often overshadowed by his longtime collaborator, Duke Ellington.
The show boasts a bravura cast, led by the captivating de Haas and radiant dynamo Keziah John-Paul, the latter as Ivie Anderson, the famed vocalist for the Ellington Orchestra, and doubling as Billy’s mother, Lillian.
Over the course of nearly three hours with intermission, the show is exhausting as a whole, while featuring dazzling performances, lush costuming and musicianship to be savored.
Written by Pittsburgher Rob Zellers (The Chief), with director Kent Gash, and with arrangements by music director, conductor and pianist Matthew Whitaker, you can at times see the struggle to curate a life lived to the fullest and the endless choices of timeless music – much of it attributed to Ellington.
From the distance of time, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (J.D. Mollison) is portrayed as both benevolent father figure and oppressor in the life of Strayhorn, an artist both of and ahead of his time.
During a 1938 concert series at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre – with a nod to the classic illuminated sign a short walk from the O’Reilly Theater on Penn Avenue – we see Ellington meet Billy and immediately recognize the young man’s genius. The popular orchestra leader brings Billy with him to New York City toward the end of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression, and together, they raise the bar for an entire genre.
They would go on to create some of the world’s most beloved jazz works, with Strayhorn taking the lead as arranger and composer. Those include Lush Life, written when Billy was a teenager, Satin Doll, Something to Live For and the song that became Ellington’s signature, Take the ‘A’ Train.
John-Paul is particularly memorable on My Little Brown Book, the first recording of a Strayhorn song, and the second-act opening number, Entracte. As Billy’s close friend Lena Horne, Arielle Roberts delivers a sexy night-club version of Oo You Make Me Tingle, before dueting with de Haas on Chelsea Bridge … There are nearly 30 songs represented in the show, and still, there are more gems to mine.
During the first act on Friday, a favorite moment was Billy meeting the man who would be the love of his life, Aaron Bridgers (the endearing Charl Brown, a Tony nominee for Motown).
Aaron, an elevator operator who also is a pianist, is from North Carolina, where Billy spent much of his childhood visiting his grandmother – an escape from his alcoholic father. Aaron says he finds jazz intimidating, and Billy shows his feelings by attempting to impart his love for the genre – it is Strayhorn’s love language, and it’s sweet and seductive at the same time.
The chemistry between de Haas and Brown is palpable in their tight-knit cocoon, but we do get a small tastes of the hateful bigotry they endured.
With Billy having found “something to live” besides his music, de Haas solos on the title song, to a well-deserved, extended ovation. And he just keeps on going. It’s a wonder that his voice doesn’t waver while he rarely leaves the stage through the first act.
Billy Strayhorn, we learn after de Haas’ initial, “Hi,” suffered from rickets and was not expected to live past infancy, so his mother didn’t name him right away. Among the names the diminutive genius answered to through his life were Swee’ Pea and Strays. He called himself “Billy Big Eyes,” claiming everything looks rosy through his large-lensed glasses.
As time marches on with Ellington, Billy finds life les and less rosy. He is living his dream on the one hand – writing and arranging music, with a roof over his head and his expenses paid. And no one in his immediate circle cares about his homosexuality.
His work for the Duke, however, grows ever more demanding, despite Strayhorn doing the bulk of the arranging and composing. There is never a question of equity in their relationship, with Ellington at one point reminding Billy, “You are my indentured servant.” The orchestra leader, meanwhile, is weighted down by both reputation and responsibility, including a payroll for up to 15 musicians.
Pittsburgh actor Richard McBride, as Ellington’s loving but frustrated son Mercer and a collaborator on “Take the ‘A’ Train,” has keen insight into both men. Mercer kindly pays Strayhorn what he sees as the ultimate compliment – that the Duke trusts Billy and his talent.
It is that singular talent that is highlighted throughout the production. There is so much to take in, Something to Live For can be dizzying, but also, breathtaking. The scenic design by Emmy-winner Jason Sherwood (Rent Live) features an encircled piano hanging precariously – or perhaps angelically – above the stage.
The dance breaks between scenes, or as integral to the musical moment, feature performers Taylor C. Collier and Tracy Anthony Dunbar sparking to the fluidity and beauty of choreography by Dell Howlett,
Strayhorn’s music resounds throughout the O’Reilly, courtesy of nine musicians, led by virtuoso jazz pianist Whitaker. The band celebrate the artist’s signature compositions that encompass jazz and other genres, as well as heartfelt emotions and evocation.
There are many behind-the-scenes heroes in this production that is ever on the move, with lighting by Broadway’s Rui Rita and sound by The Public’s Zach Moore, in a space that is fully in use, from balcony scenes and even back of house. The costumes by Jahise LeBouef – beginning with the silver-trimmed white gown worn by John-Paul in her entrance, to the deep blue tones adorning Roberts’ Billie Holiday – are to die for.
Scenes centered around cross-country train travel highlight the company in motion. Charl Brown and Joseph McGranaghan hop in and out of these scenes, adding to the feel of locomotion.
McGranaghan (The Public’s Barefoot in the Park) moves in and out of scenes as a high school pal back in the ’Burgh, a racist and homophobic sailor in a club, and Lena Horne’s second husband, Lennie Hayton. Her first marriage, to Pittsburgher Louis Jordan Jones, gave her a “yinzer” bond with Strayhorn. Her second marriage, to a white man, was illegal in many States, and led to a Paris wedding – with Billy at her side.
As Strayhorn’s story and the show draw to a close, we get a swift mention of his civil rights activism, and a poignant scene that has Billy relating his cancer diagnosis to the Duke – something even the great conductor can’t fix.
Strayhorn died in 1967, at age 51. He was awarded a posthumous Grammy – his Trustees Award, given to innovative recording artists, is on display in the Streets of Strayhorn exhibition at the O’Reilly Theater. Ellington, meanwhile, received 11 Grammys, including Lifetime Achievement and Trustees Awards, with 22 nominations. Despite being recommended for the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, the Duke was denied the honor, which emerged as a cause celeb.
When Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer in 1997, he said, “I’m more grateful for the recognition of jazz music than for myself because a lot of other musicians deserved it. Duke Ellington should have gotten one.”
If Ellington’s body of work was worthy of a Pulitzer, it most certainly is shared with the man behind the music, as is made evident in Something to Live For.
On Friday, after the stunning, inspiring and yes, lush retelling of a singular life, with the jazzed-up audience on its feet and clapping, the company gathered to dance together in one last jam. Having just said hello, no one wanted to say goodbye to the music of fellow Pittsburgher Billy Strayhorn.
STREETS OF STRAYHORN
An exhibition of Billy Strayhorn artifacts and photos is on display as you enter the auditorium of the O’Reilly Theater
TICKETS AND DETAILS
The 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/.