The Harlem swing

The rollicking Broadway show ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ takes audiences back to the jazz era of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Highlights: The Harlem swing (photo credit: courtesy)
Highlights: The Harlem swing
(photo credit: 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 show.
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 act.”
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 Broadway.
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,” laughs Maltby.
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 world.
This show toured and was produced locally all at once.
and 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 (; at the Jerusalem Theater on October 22 and 23; and at the Haifa Auditorium on October 24 and 25. (