From Dreamgirls to Apollo Club Harlem, Apollo Theater Celebrates 80 Years of Entertainment
By Karu F. Daniels
Harlem's world-famous landmark theatre is not only iconic in the pop music realm; it also has footprints in the history of musical theatre.
The world-famous Apollo Theater kicked off its 80th anniversary celebration with a special presentation of its legendary Amateur Night showcase Jan. 29. The not-for-profit Harlem venue's executives also unveiled new programming plans (including another upcoming installment of Apollo Club Harlem, featuring Maurice Hines) and a groundbreaking public crowd-funding initiative.
Throughout its rich history, the Apollo has been known as the birthplace of some of the greatest talents in entertainment, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey via its trademark Amateur Night talent competition — which set the blueprint for today's massively popular TV shows such as "American Idol," "The Voice" and "The X Factor."
Tony Award winners Dee Dee Bridgewater and Whoopi Goldberg and Grammy Award winners Annie Lennox and Metallica have graced the stage over the years, and President Barack Obama famously sang Al Green lyrics onstage during a 2012 campaign fundraiser.
"It is truly humbling to think about the impact the Apollo Theater has had on the development of our culture for eight decades — from Ella Fitzgerald's scatting for the first time on Amateur Night to jumpstarting the careers of a young Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Lauryn Hill and countless others," said Jonelle Procope, President and CEO of the Apollo. "It is also incredible to look at the impact the Apollo continues to have today."
Notable fare in the vein of Broadway has also made its way through the hallowed halls.
In 2002, a few years after the success of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, and during the Broadway launch of Topdog/Underdog, George C. Wolfe was tapped to produce the ambitious musical revue Harlem Song, which shone light on the history of the legendary uptown community, while also serving as a weekend showpiece for the venue while it was undergoing a major renovation.
"There are a lot of people who believe they own the history, the mythology of Harlem. You know, they believe it's their story. But I have to tell the stories that intrigue me," Wolfe said in a 2002 New York Magazine interview. "The piece is about the energy of the day and, ultimately, about the regenerative power of community. That gave me my clues about what I needed to do."
The following year, the Chicago Black Ensemble's production of The Jackie Wilson Story culminated its tour with a string of engagements at the Apollo. It was during this tour stop that the musical's star, Chester Gregory, was officially born.
"It changed my life," Gregory, whose Broadway credits include Tarzan, Cry-Baby and Sister Act, told Playbill.com. "After performing there, I was connected to the producers of Hairspray and made my Broadway debut 60 days later."
Unknown to many, the Gary, Indiana native previously competed for Amateur Night the year before his career-making role — and was booed off the stage.
"That evening was tough, but I found comfort in a slice of cheese pizza and a prayer," Gregory quipped. "I prayed for a chance to return to the Apollo. Little did I know, the following year, I would be back, with a vengeance, with The Jackie Wilson Story."
A few years later, the vocal dynamo would return back to the Apollo as James Thunder Early in Dreamgirls.
In 2009, a newly revamped revival of Michael Bennett's legendary tuner kicked off its national tour at the Apollo starring a string of Broadway's newest talents. Syesha Mercado (The Book of Mormon), Nikki Kimbrough (A Night with Janis Joplin), Ephraim M Sykes (Motown), Moya Angela (Ghost The Musical), Adrienne Warren (Bring It On: The Musical) and Trevon Davis (Porgy and Bess) also appeared in the Robert Longbottom-helmed production.
"When I returned to the Apollo, years later with Dreamgirls, 'Chester! Welcome home!' is how they greeted me," Gregory added. "The Apollo Theater is 'family' to me. It is my favorite venue and has a history that is incomparable to anywhere else."
In 2013, another nod to The Great White Way came in the form of Apollo Club Harlem, a 90-minute, fast-paced musical revue showcasing the Apollo's glorious musical legacy created by Tony Award nominee Hines and starring Tony and Grammy Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater. The theatre was transformed into an elegant supper club reminiscent of the popular Harlem haunts of the 1930s and '40's.
"In addition to our legacy as one of America's most beloved music institutions, the Apollo is... as dedicated to providing a platform for emerging and established artists in any and every genre and discipline of entertainment from jazz to hip-hop to dance to theatre," noted Apollo's executive producer, Mikki Shepard.
"The Apollo has such a long-standing relationship with the theatre community," she added. "In fact, many of our Apollo legends have gone on to become stars on Broadway such as Leslie Uggams, Maurice Hines, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and Stephanie Mills, who was an Amateur Night winner several times over."
Most recently, the New York International Fringe Festival hit production, Unspeakable, a dramatic fantasia inspired by the life of comedy icon Richard Pryor, played the Apollo Theater's Sound Stage. A Broadway-themed Amateur Night is presented annually.
Though they are few and far between, the Apollo's musical theatre endeavors seem to be effective — so much so that Sheppard said she is currently developing theatre initiatives to be announced later this year.
The new installment of Apollo Club Harlem (directed, choreographed and hosted by Hines) runs Feb. 20-23.
Visit apollotheater.org for more information.
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