The Harlem swing
The rollicking Broadway show ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ takes audiences back to the jazz era of the 1920s and ‘30s.
The Harlem swing Photo: courtesy
In 1978, when the first production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ premiered at the
Manhattan Theater Club, writer and director Richard Maltby, Jr. had no idea of
the range and lifespan of the new musical revue. A novice in the field of
musical theater direction, Maltby, together with Murray Horwitz, put to stage a
passion they shared – 1920s and 1930s music from Harlem. Now, more than three
decades later and with many successful productions under his belt, Maltby is
still amazed at the power of the songs and lyrics of his first Broadway
Next week, Ain’t Misbehavin’ will add Israel to the list of places
visited on the production’s most recent international tour.
The show will
be presented at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, the Jerusalem Theatre and
the Haifa Auditorium .
“It was an amazing process,” says Maltby of the
days and nights spent in front of the developing book for Ain’t Misbehavin’. “We
had no idea what it was going to turn into. It was intended to be a small
nightclub cabaret act at the Manhattan Theater Club. We had done some research,
Murray and I, about Fats Waller, but he died young and didn’t have a second
Though they knew that the direction was to honor the genius of jazz
entertainer Waller, the two struggled to find a narrative based on the artist’s
short life. At the time, on Broadway there was a definitive separation between
musicals that told a story, or book musicals, and those that presented a
collection of vignettes, called revues.
“We decided to do an evening of
songs but pour into it all the information that we would have put into a book
musical. In doing so, we seemed to have invented something that never existed
before, which is a revue with a script that holds it together. There’s a world
and characters that live within that world. These people, black artists working
in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s, laid the groundwork for all these great artists
working in the 1950s.
They did it at a time when everyone was against
them. The only way to make a name for yourself in Harlem in the 1930s was to be
better than everyone else. Fats Waller played piano better than anyone else in the world.
We took those
ideas and put them into the show, and something began to emerge. The audiences
understood that we weren’t putting together a collection of songs but putting
together a world,” Maltby explains.
From the Manhattan Theater Club,
Ain’t Misbehavin’ was quickly transferred to the big league of
Then, just months after opening, the show swept the Tony
Awards. “We went into rehearsal on January 1, opened on February 1, played for
one month and closed on March 1. On April 1 we opened on Broadway, and on June 1
we won every award you can imagine. No other show has a trajectory like that,”
For the next two years, Maltby’s time was spent preparing
new casts for the performance. One of the advantages of Ain’t Misbehavin’ was
that it had a small cast, unlike other successful Broadway shows. With only five
lead performers and a band, the producers quickly discovered that the show was
perfect for the road.
“We had five companies traveling all over the
This show toured and was produced locally all at once.
it always worked. Our choreographer always said you couldn’t kill it with a
stick,” he says While the songs and lyrics speak of a reality long gone and far
away from the stages of Israel, Maltby assures that foreign audiences will be
able to connect to the content.
“This show is about a culture that was
bringing an oppressed people to be a major creative force. This is how it was
done in the United States, but everyone in the world knows about striving to
create something new,” he says
Ain’t Misbehavin’ will run at the Tel Aviv
Performing Arts Center from October 17-20 (www.israel-opera.co.il); at the
Jerusalem Theater on October 22 and 23; and at the Haifa Auditorium on October
24 and 25. (www.bimot.co.il).