NOTES: "Hallelujah, Baby!" makes a rare NYC appearance
“Mufti”, a word of Arabic derivation, was adopted by the British military in the early 20th century to mean “civilian attire”. And so these lovingly produced, small budget concerts are performed “in street clothes, without the trappings of a full production”—a reminder of what City Center’s “Encores!” concerts used to be like, before becoming full scale productions with sets, costumes, lighting, choreography, and memorized lines (I’m not complaining).
“Hallelujah, Baby!”, which hasn’t been seen in New York since its last Mufti treatment in 2000, kicks off this year’s three show season dedicated to composer Jule Styne (“Gypsy”, “Funny Girl”). This largely-forgotten musical is precisely the kind of show the Mufti series was made for; while it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1968—an admittedly weak season—“Hallelujah, Baby!” only ran 293 performances on Broadway, and has rarely been performed since.
With lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Singin’ in the Rain”, “On the Town”) and a book by Arthur Laurents (“West Side Story”, “Gypsy”), “Hallelujah, Baby!” was originally written as a star vehicle for the steely Lena Horne, then hastily re-written when she declined to participate and the leading role was given to a then-unknown sweetheart named Leslie Uggams (“Roots”, “Empire”).
The show follows its African American leading lady, Georgina (a fabulous Stephanie Umoh, “Ragtime”), from the 1910s to the 1960s as she struggles to make a living as a singer while negotiating the scourge of Jim Crow, the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise of the civil rights movement. Discouraged and then later bolstered by her Momma (Vivian Reed, “Bubbling Brown Sugar”), a South Carolina housemaid, and courted through the years by Clem (Jarran Muse), a black train porter, and Harvey (Tally Sessions), a white theatre producer, Georgina becomes a big star in New York in the end, striking a chord of triumph that felt tone-deaf amid the racial tumult of 1967 and sadly, today as well.
While asking one character to be an all-encompassing metaphor for an entire community of people is unfair, Mr. Laurents re-visited his book in 2004, with some new lyrics by Amanda Green (daughter of Adolph), in an attempt better balance the tone of the show and reflect the ongoing fight for equality and civil rights by the African American community. That version now plays at the York Theatre, and while surely an improvement over the original, a musical about the African American experience written by four white Jews will always struggle with presenting an authentic voice. And the peppy, traditional musical theatre score belies the progressive ambition of the story, and the complex racial politics addressed in Mr. Laurents’ more pointed book.
That said, the act one torch song closer, “Being Good”, still soars, and the inclusion of “When the Weather’s Better”, which was cut in Boston in 1967 and added back in for the national tour, makes for an excellent book-ender to the story and finally provides some logic for the umbrella-clad figure in the iconic logo for the show (that was clearly designed out of town).
“Hallelujah, Baby!” is worth seeing for any serious student of musical theatre history, and this concert features the strongest cast I’ve seen in a Mufti production to date, particularly Ms. Umoh and Ms. Reed, as Georgina and Momma, respectively. Remaining shows in this year’s series include “Bar Mitzvah Boy” (1978) and “Subways Are For Sleeping” (1961). Stay tuned for reports.
Musicals in Mufti
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (one intermission)
Remaining Performances: January 31st, February 1st-4th