By Peter Filichia –
In the entire sixty-five year history of The Tony Awards®, only one Tony-losing play has ever been turned into a Tony-winning musical.
And yet, that Tony-loser — A Raisin in the Sun (which lost the 1959-1960 race to The Miracle Worker) – has remained far more popular than the Tony-winner it spawned in 1973-1974: Raisin, which celebrates its thirty-eighth anniversary on Oct. 18.
That doesn’t remotely mean, however, that Raisin isn’t worth investigating. Indeed, stock and amateur groups that are looking for a different take on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic should look at the Samuel French script and listen to the Masterworks Broadway original cast album (which won a 1975 Grammy, too).
Composer Judd Woldin and lyricist Robert Brittan took on a daunting task when they decided to adapt a very famous play. The demand on any authors to trump the literary ace they’re transforming is always quite a challenge.
But Woldin and Brittan simply started musicalizing Hansberry’s ground-breaker about racial prejudice as a writing exercise for the class they were attending: The BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. That’s where students are asked to musicalize plays in order to learn how to adapt them. Raisin turned out so well, however, that Robert Nemiroff – once Hansberry’s husband and her literary executor after her death in 1965 – decided to produce it. He’d also adapt the play into a libretto (with help from Charlotte Zaltzberg).
After tryouts in Washington, DC and Philadelphia, Raisin came to Broadway for a healthy 847 performances. And while what is now known as The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop has had many a student who’s contributed to subsequent Tony®-winning musicals – A Chorus Line, Nine, Titanic and Avenue Q among them — Raisin was the first BMI-branded show to cop the coveted prize.
Woldin and Brittan did well by all three generations of the Younger Family who live in one crowded Chicago apartment. For materfamilias Lena, they had her express her simplicity in “A Whole Lotta Sunlight,” a love song to her plant. She also leads “He Come Down This Morning,” a stirring Gospel spiritual in church.
For Walter Lee, her son who hates his job and has bigger dreams, the songwriters created an angry rant in “Man Say” and an angrier one still in “You Done Right,” when he feels his mother has betrayed him. Later, however, Walter Lee rallies with the pulsating “It’s a Deal.” He believes his future is in selling “Booze.” That’s a song, too, although those who are familiar with Raisin solely from its long-playing record release won’t know it; while the song was recorded in 1973, it wasn’t included on that disc. It’s since been re-instated.
The songwriters gave Ruth a lovely song in which she disarms her angry son (“Whose Little Angry Man”) and one where she tries to see where marriage has gone wrong with Walter (“Sweet Time”). As the script indicates, the song should be “sung freely: rubato, staccato, not rushed to stress the memories, the sweetness and the softness that is within them.”
Lena’s daughter Beneatha, who’s in the forefront of the black movement, has an African-infused song called “Alaiyo” with her new boyfriend. She’ll later see her mother’s point-of-view in the haunting “Measure the Valleys.”
And let’s not forget little Travis Younger. He gets a perky song called “Sidewalk Tree,” where he wonders why his family is so intent on moving when he’s happy right where he is.
In addition to the Tony® for Best Musical, Raisin won a Best Musical Actress Tony for Virginia Capers, who portrayed Lena. The three actors who portrayed her son, daughter-in-law and grandson all wound up winning Theatre World Awards, given to performers who make their significant New York debuts. Rarely do three performers from the same production get their own individual awards, but that’s what happened to Joe Morton (Walter Lee), Ralph Carter (Travis) and Ernestine Jackson (Ruth).
Morton, of course, went on to become a noted Hollywood actor. He’s since appeared in dozens of movies, and had a nice five-year run as Henry Deacon in the TV series Eureka. He’s been nominated for various awards for his roles in American Gangster and Jasper, Texas, but there’s a good chance that the film he’s most glad he made is The Brother from Another Planet. In it, he portrayed an alien who had little Hershey-kisses like growths upon each of his toes. Before filming, these appendages took hours to be glued to his feet, which gave Morton enough time to get to know the woman doing the applying: Nora Chavooshian. This month, they celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary.
Ralph Carter was marking his third-month anniversary with Raisin when the creators of a new sitcom called Good Times saw the musical. They decided that the 13-year-old would be ideal to play the son of John Amos and Esther Rolle. But Carter was under contract to Raisin.
Nemiroff decided not to stand in his way — under the condition that the Good Times end credits would mention his largesse and plug Raisin. It did, until Raisin closed. Carter did all 133 episodes of the show, had a modest pop career and then went into the ministry.
Not long after Raisin opened, Sports Illustrated told a funny story about Ernestine Jackson. That wasn’t because she’d been an athlete, but a waitress.
Some years before, Jackson got a job in the fancifully named “Chock Full o’ Nuts,” where she was given a name-tag: Employee Number 35. The number struck Jackson as odd, because clearly there were more than 35 employees working at this restaurant. Her manager explained that Employee Number 35 had recently quit, and the company simply recycled numbers.
Then Jackson landed her first Broadway role in Hello, Dolly! When she told her manager that she was quitting – and why – he was very much impressed. “We’ve had a lot of people working here who’ve wanted to get to Broadway,” he said, “but you’re the first one to make it. So I’m going to do what they do in sports: I’m retiring your number. From now on, no other employee in this Chock Full of Nuts will ever wear Employee Number 35.” And if he remained true to his word, no one ever did.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.