An old familiar feeling is in the air. In theaters across the country, nostalgia for the big band days of the 1930s and ’40s seems to be cropping up. The Colony Theatre’s revival of The All Night Strut! is only the latest indicator.
A few other examples: In the Mood: 1940s Revue is in the midst of a national tour,Â Theatre @ Boston Court hosted a weekend-long workshop of that period’s signature musical, Pal Joey (albeit a slightly more provocative retelling), and at Club Nokia, TV’s master of crass Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) and pop singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles filmed a live concert of obscure ’40s standards.
The Colony, in Burbank, is wrapping its current season with Fran Charnas’ The All Night Strut! This musical celebration carries the audience from the Depression through World War II and the post-war boom. In the midst of tech rehearsals, co-directors/choreographers (and real-life couple) Paul Kreppel and Murphy Cross offer some insight into this resurgence of the times and the secret to their creative partnership.
Before sitting down to chat, Cross and Kreppel do a walk-through of Stephen Gifford’s remarkable set. A multi-tiered, angular staircase design spans the entire length of the Colony’s thrust stage with lush white satin draped in the background. The look is classic, yet modern. One thing’s for sure: this isn’t Ricky Ricardo’s bandstand. What was their inspiration for the look? Cross recalls, “Stephen sent us a bunch of pictures to shake our minds up and get us thinking. We immediately looked at this photograph of this one bandstand and thought it was so cool. Edward Hopper’s paintings also influenced us a lot.” To which Kreppel adds, “Without our stage looking like a bandstand, it still has the essence of one.” As with most great partnerships, these two finish each other’s sentences.
Returning to the Colony after their Ovation-winning run of Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! (which also garnered them Tony Awards as producers during its Broadway run), it’s evident how enthusiastic Kreppel and Cross are to be back. Cross praises the Colony audiences for not only their devotion to theater but also their high standards as a motivation to deliver. “The Colony has a strong, loyal subscription base and a genuine love and appreciation for theater. They’re tremendous listeners and they have to be. Los Angeles is a smart town. These people know how to be entertained!”
Kreppel, who notes the variety and breadth of the Colony’s seasonal programming, believes this is the perfect show to close out the season. “This show, in particular, will really speak to them. They’re people who get this music; it’s part of their core.”
For Kreppel and Cross, preserving the integrity of the music for their audience is everything. “We’re not trying to modernize this show at all. If anything, we’re trying to make it more specific to the origins of the music. It’s not a museum piece,” says Kreppel. “Even though this is a younger cast and they didn’t grow up with this music, we want them to sing it as if it is their music and take us, the audience, on this journey. This is classical music, as far as we’re concerned. It’s classical American music, just as much as what Beethoven or Bach wrote is now considered “˜classical’.”
Cross is adamant — this show isn’t your typical musical revue. The cast will perform the music as homage to the times. “It’s not that big, piercing Broadway sound. We wanted to honor the music and period, which produced this beautiful, haunting, covered sound. We’re not doing Legally Blonde.”
Essential to capturing this particular sound have been, naturally, the musical director and (perhaps unnaturally) YouTube. “We are so lucky to have Dean Mora working with us. He lives this music. He has a big band and plays at the Cicada Club downtown. He knows all of the tempos, all of the history behind each song. YouTube has also been an amazing resource for us. You can see Cab Calloway performing this stuff all the way through his life, the great Nicholas Brothers, the fabulous Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne doing “˜A Fine Romance’.”
Both directors are keenly focused on providing an emotional, sensory experience for their audience with this music. “There’s such a special relationship between music and memory” remarks Cross. “Music underscores your life. To this day, if I hear a certain song, I can see myself as 16 years old, sitting by my window with an old-fashioned radio, remembering all of the emotions and the special feelings I had in my heart for that certain someone. And that’s what this show does.”
Kreppel explains why generations have such a strong bond to the music of their youth. “The music that means the most to people is what you listen to while you’re growing up, between 12 and 25, when music is most impactful because you’re coming of age and going through things. So you remember all of those emotional experiences and tie them to music.”
Those who are coming to the show from a place of nostalgia are guaranteed a remarkable journey back in time, through the hardships and breakthroughs of the ’30s and ’40s. “The first act is about the Depression and the way we use music to feel better in times of hardship,” says Cross. “Harlem during the ’30s is when swing came into being. It was a release. You could just let your cares and troubles go as you’re lifted into the air by your partner.”
In counterpoint, Kreppel notes the music of the Depression “was also about tapping into all of those emotions, including the pain and loss. Some of the World War II songs are really upbeat but some of them are about having to say goodbye, like “˜I’ll Be Seeing You.’ But they’re always very hopeful. Even within the sadness of it all, there’s always hope.”
That particular song has a particular significance for Cross. “’I’ll Be Seeing You’ is a tough one for me. It reminds me of my parents, who lived that song. They got married right before my dad went off to Burma, and I look at the pictures of him wearing his little traveling hat””which we will feature in the show””and I get goosebumps just thinking about it. My mom worked in a factory just like Rosie the Riveter did. So for me it is a very personal homage and journey.”
As much as it was a time of setbacks for America, Kreppel points out that it was also a time of breakthroughs, and the music reflects that. “You can really plot out our culture and history through music. These songs were breaking the color barrier at the time, very much the way rock “˜n roll did… Benny Goodman became a hit and that’s what lit the match and set fire across the country. But people forget that was a few years after Duke Ellington had already done the same type of music.
“Watching women through the 20th century was also fascinating. It’s evident in the music and the dance. By the time the war came, the ladies were tough. They were doing the jobs and men resented it. After the war, the guys came home and they said “˜Okay, back in the kitchen.’ All of a sudden the women were more subdued than they had been in 59 years. But in their heads, they knew what it was like to be in the world and they taught it to their daughters, who became feminists and children of the ’60s.”
Perhaps the reason for contemporary audience’s recent appreciation for this music and these times are, as Kreppel points out, because of the parallels. “We also live in a time where we’re going through our own depression of sorts, although it’s nowhere near (and hopefully never will be) what it was, during theÂ ’30s. It’s fascinating to hear people complaining about the economy while watching their high-def televisions and drinking Starbucks. But it has impacted a lot of people and we are feeling it to some degree. We are also in wars right now.”
While the show deals with themes of war and struggle, things apparently couldn’t be happier behind the curtain. With a decade-long collaborative partnership both on and off the stage, Kreppel and Cross seem to have mastered the art of harmony and fostering creativity. According to Kreppel, their secret is a common desire to keep their eyes forward. “We have a similar theory of not knowing what the final product is going to be before we do it. ”
Cross adds that it’s about balance and a genuine love for the work. “When we started working together, we realized that work can be fun. We sort of bring the masculine and feminine together and it creates a nice balance to our work. We’re the nice mom and dad who want their kids to feel supported and encouraged to express themselves creatively. When you foster that kind of environment, you can’t help but feel inspired.”
An ideology we can perhaps all take a lesson from, as they offer us a glimpse into the past while keeping an eye on the future.
***All production photography by Michael Lamont
The All Night Strut! Opens April 2; plays Thur.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 and 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through May 1. Tickets: $20-$42 (student, senior and group discounts available) Talkbacks after the Fri., April 8 and Thur., April 21 performances. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St. (free parking in mall), Burbank; 818.558.7000 ext. 15 or www.colonytheater.org.