From the early 1920s to 1940, the Cotton Club was the showplace for African-American performers in New York. Now the Harlem landmark and the artists who made it great — Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith and the Nicholas Brothers are just a few of them — are being celebrated in a Broadway revue called After Midnight.
New York University history professor David Levering Lewis, author of When Harlem Was In Vogue, thinks the show does a pretty good job of evoking the flavor of the place in its heyday.
“I thought it captured the flavor of what would have been one night — the best ever — at the Cotton Club,” he says.
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 stagings of old musicals. Viertel says the show came about “largely because I have a fixation with Harold Arlen.”
The songwriter, famous for songs like “Stormy Weather” and “Over the Rainbow,” wrote material for the Cotton Club early in his career, Viertel notes.
“And Wynton has a lifelong obsession with Duke Ellington,” he says. “And while Arlen was writing songs for the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington [led] the house band of the Cotton Club.”
‘Jungle Music’ And Contraband Hooch
Viertel and Marsalis drew on old photographs, YouTube videos and classic recordings, searching for inspiration about both content and atmosphere. And that atmosphere, let’s not forget, was a complicated one: The Cotton Club was a mob joint, owned by a Chicago gangster named Owney Madden, created as a way to sell booze at inflated prices during Prohibition. And while it was located on Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem, it was open to whites only.
“It was infamously racially exclusive,” says Levering Lewis, the NYU historian. “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!”
That gives pause to actor Dulé Hill, who serves as emcee for After Midnight — singing, dancing and delivering the poetry of Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes.
“As much as we try, I don’t think we’ll really ever understand what that felt like,” Hill says. “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.”
The original Cotton Club revues featured some offensive racial stereotyping — the emcee was fond of introducing Ellington as “the greatest living master of jungle music” — which the show consciously avoids.
“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,” Viertel says. “We didn’t think it would serve them, or our current cast or musicians, to … 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.”
But After Midnight is not trying to whitewash history, Dulé Hill argues.
“It’s not that we’re brushing it underneath the rug and saying, “No, don’t pay any attention to that,'” he says. “That informs everything we’re doing. But we’re choosing to celebrate. And life is all about choice. And so is art.”
Standards And Rarities, And A Revolving Stage Door
Like the Cotton Club revues, After Midnight features a rotating group of guest stars. Fantasia Barrino, the American Idol winner, opened the show; 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.
“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.”
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 — Cab Calloway’s “Zah Zuh Zaz.”
“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,” Lang says. “Because when I look at the YouTubes of Cab Calloway performing the song, he was like a nut!”