Naughty but Nice: 'Ain't Misbehavin' Toes the Line in Tel Aviv

One of Broadway's most popular musicals brings raunchy, 1920's Harlem to Israel. Uri Klein speaks to veteran American director Richard Maltby.

"Ain't Misbehavin," a production based on the music of composer and pianist Fats Waller, had its first performance off-Broadway, but in the wake of its critical and commercial success it moved over to Broadway. It opened on May 9, 1978, and ran for 1,604 performances. In addition to its success at the box office, the show won three Tony Awards, including for best musical and best direction of a musical, which was awarded to Richard Maltby, Jr.

Maltby was also involved in shaping a new American production of the show, which will be coming to Israel next week. For the occasion, I recently interviewed him by phone from New York.

Over the years there have been many revivals of the show, which has a cast of only five singers and dancers. According to Maltby, however, in most of those productions the humor of the original staging was lost, together with its emphasis on the historical and cultural aspects of the subject matter it deals with.

The Israeli production will, of course, feature a cast different from the one that performed in the show in the 1970s, which included actress and singer Nell Carter. That role turned Carter into a star: She won "Ain't Misbehavin's" third Tony, and went on to become the star of a successful television series ("Gimme a Break!" ). Her crisis-filled life ended in 2003, when she was 54. However, in every respect apart from the original cast, promises Maltby, the local show is identical in quality to the original. Because of the problematic language of the show's original title, it is presented in non-English speaking countries under the title "Harlem Swing," which is how it is being billed here.

Maltby's greatest successes have been in the area of directing revues. In 1999 he directed the show "Fosse," which was made up entirely of dance numbers created by the late choreographer Bob Fosse, together with Ann Reinking, one of Fosse's favorite dancers and one of the many women with whom he was involved romantically. That show too won a Tony for best musical of the year, and it played on Broadway 1,093 times.

Maltby, born in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1937, is also a lyricist and has been involved in writing a number of shows, together with composer David Shire. Their revues "Starting Here, Starting Now" and "Closer than Ever" were produced off-Broadway in 1977 and 1989, respectively, and were greater successes than the two original musicals written by the duo.

Maltby himself is not fond of revue - a musical production without a plot - as a genre, because most such shows are little more than a random collection of sketches and musical numbers, and lack an underlying idea that affords the collection a theatrical raison d'etre.

But "Harlem Swing" is not like that. The production was born of the desire to deal with the place of black musicians in American popular music. The bulk of the show is based on songs written by the black composer, jazz pianist, singer and entertainer Thomas Wright Waller, who because of his rotund figure became known as Fats Waller. (The original title of the show, "Ain't Misbehavin," is the title of his best-known song. )

"Through the show," says Maltby, "we tried not only to celebrate the contribution by black musicians to the history of popular American music, but also to emphasize the mixed nature of the phenomenon."

Music by black artists influenced the work of white composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, but Berlin and Gershwin won great success - much more than the black musicians whom they were influenced by, and from whom they sometimes arguably stole. Berlin, Gershwin and the New York social elite came to watch the performances of those black musicians at venues like the Cotton Club in Harlem, but those clubs were closed to black audiences.

"This appalling phenomenon continued into the 1960s," says Maltby. "We chose to focus on Fats Waller because, whereas the names of most black artists were not familiar to the white audience, Fats Waller was the first black artist to have won popularity among the white audience as well, mainly because he was funny. He created a kind of revolution in a hostile reality. He was the black artist who signed a contract with a record company called Race Records and he was the first black composer to have a revue, 'Hot Chocolates,' which he wrote together with the black lyricist and composer Andy Razaf, performed successfully on Broadway, in 1929."

"Harlem Swing" deals with Waller's success, but also emphasizes the difficult aspects of the historical, social and cultural reality in which he worked and the tragic aspects of the life of the man himself, who for the sake of the white audience mostly evinced a lively comical personality.

Waller was born in New York in 1904 and died of pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39, shortly after appearing in the musical film "Stormy Weather," in which all the actors were black. It was a success even though the film was initially banned in the American South.

Maltby's father, Richard Maltby, Sr., was the well-known conductor of a big band, and the son drew his love for popular music from his home. He saw musicals as a child, and when asked which original productions of classical musicals he saw, he lists "Carousel," "Kiss Me, Kate," "My Fair Lady" "The Pajama Game" and more. More than anything, Maltby says, he was influenced by watching a production in 1956 of the opera "Porgy and Bess" composed by George Gershwin. This was the production that was sent by the U.S. government to the Soviet Union as a "goodwill ambassador," and Maltby saw it after it had come back in from the cold.

Maltby met his collaborator David Shire when they were students at Yale University; that is also where they wrote their first songs. In addition to the collections of their songs included in the two off-Broadway shows, Maltby and Shire wrote two original musicals. One of them, called "Baby," told the story of three couples waiting to have a child and it played on Broadway 141 times in 1983. The second was a musical adaptation of Penny Marshall's 1988 film "Big," which ended after only 193 performances and was considered one of the biggest economic failures in the history of the American musical in recent decades.

An even bigger flop was "Nick & Nora," which closed after a mere nine performances in 1991. Maltby wrote the lyrics for the musical, with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Charles Strouse. This was an attempt to bring to the musical stage the married couple of detectives Nick and Nora Charles, the protagonists of Dashiell Hammett's book "The Thin Man" as well a successful series of films.

Perfect balance

"Most of the musicals produced on Broadway every year flop," says Maltby. "This is part of the rules of the game. Writing a musical is one of the most difficult arts there is, because a musical is made up of so many elements - plot, characters, singing, dancing - that need to be in perfect balance with one another, and it's enough for only one of these factors to creak to cause the musical to fail.

"Producing a musical is a difficult and complicated process, but amazingly creative, and therefore I persist at it. The work on a musical can be torture, especially at the stage when you try to fix what's wrong with it in tryouts outside of New York, before its opening on Broadway - but it is also incredibly enjoyable."

One of Maltby's great successes was the English lyrics he wrote in 1989 for the musical "Miss Saigon," by Claude-Michel Schoenberg (music ) and Alain Boublil (lyrics ), which ran 4,264 times in London and 4,092 times on Broadway.

The latest collaboration between Maltby and Shire is a musical entitled "Take Flight," about the beginnings of aviation, whose characters include the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. The musical was first staged in 2007 in London, and it received good reviews, but it has not yet come to Broadway. Its only U.S. production took place two years ago, at the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Maltby agrees with me that a writer of musicals does not have an easy life. "However," he adds, "I have managed to earn my living in the field of musicals and there are lots of talented people who don't manage to do this. For this I am grateful."