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Reviving "St. Louis Woman": Vernel Bagneris.

Also star Vernel Bagneris who also wrote, directed and starred in the hit show, “One mo’ Time’ and the sequel “Further Mo.’

32:18

Other segments from the episode on June 21, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 21, 2000: Interview with Laurence Maslon; Interview with Vernel Bagneris; Review of Britney Spears' and Hanson's albums "Oops! I Did It Again" and "Third Time Around."

Transcript

DATE June 21, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Performer and associate producer Laurence Maslon and
actor-singer Vernel Bagneris discuss the history and revival
of "Saint Louis Woman"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Two great songwriters, composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Johnny Mercer,
collaborated on the songs for the 1946 musical "Saint Louis Woman." It had a
great score, including "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is
Home" and "I Had Myself a True Love." The show had an all African-American
cast with terrific stars, including the song-and-dance team of the Nicholas
Brothers and Pearl Bailey. But the show flopped, and that was blamed not on
the music or the cast but on the book.

A couple of years ago, the Encore Series in New York mounted a revival. Now
the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia is reviving the show, but they
commissioned a new book, adapted from the musical and from the novel it was
based on. The basics of the story remain. It's about a jockey named Li'l
Augie, who has always been blessed with good luck--so good that he
effortlessly wins a beautiful woman away from her tough-guy boyfriend. But
when the ex-boyfriend is shot and believes that Augie killed him, he puts a
curse on Augie which may reverse Augie's luck forever.

In a moment, we'll meet the writer, Laurence Maslon, performer/associate
director at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. First let's hear Harold Nicholas
from the original 1946 cast recording of "Saint Louis Woman."

(Soundbite of "Saint Louis Woman")

Mr. HAROLD NICHOLAS: (Singing) You're gonna love me like nobody's loved me,
come rain or come shine. Happy together, unhappy together and won't it be
fine. Days may be cloudy or sunny, we're in or we're out of the money...

Unidentified Woman and Mr. NICHOLAS: (Singing) ...but I'm with you
(unintelligible), I'm with you rain or shine.

GROSS: That's music from the original cast recording of "Saint Louis Woman."
Lawrence Maslon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

The music theater world seems to pretty much be in agreement that the music
from "Saint Louis Woman" is terrific and that the book stinks. Now you're not
doing the original book. You rewrote the book...

Mr. LAWRENCE MASLON: Yes.

GROSS: ...for this Prince Music Theater production. What is so awful about
the original book?

Mr. MASLON: The original book was based on a novel called "God Sends
Sunday," by a major light of the Harlem renaissance named Arna Bontemps. And
it was this very picaresque, sad novel called "God Sends Sunday" about a black
jockey who had good luck and bad luck and traveled the country, and it wasn't
your typical fare, by any means. And then, in the middle of the Federal
Theater Project(ph) in New York--the Federal Theater Project had a unit called
the Negro Theater Unit and audiences may be familiar with that through the
film "Cradle Will Rock." And they did a very brief run of a play version of
this novel called "Saint Louis Woman" that Arna Bontemps collaborated with
Countee Cullen, another major poet from the Harlem renaissance.

Had a very brief run, and then after the war there was a kind of upsurge, I
guess, in the idea of doing some black musicals. "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin
in the Sky" were very popular film musicals during the war and this material
was optioned by a Broadway producer named Edward Gross. And I think it was
sort of a kind of a shotgun marriage in a way, because Cullen and Bontemps
were asked to provide the libretto and they worked with Arlen and Mercer and
things kind of went from bad to worse, not among these gentlemen but poor
Countee Cullen died two days before it went into rehearsal. And I think, more
than anything, the original material, which is salty and contradictory and
difficult and idiosyncratic and wonderful, got ironed out by a lot of the
conventions of post-World War II musicals.

GROSS: How did it get ironed out? What were the conventions and what just
doesn't work about the book? Why is it so bad that no one wants to touch it?

Mr. MASLON: Well, I think there are a number of things. I think it has its
own flavor or its own wrinkles, as I like to say, and I think those wrinkles
were steamed out. I mean, back then you had, you know, Laurey and Curly in
"Oklahoma," and then you had the comic subcouple, Ado Annie and Will Parker
and then you had to have your dream ballet and of course, of course, of
course, you had to have a happy ending or you couldn't have a musical. And I
feel all those pressures were sort of put onto the show, whether they were
conscious or not. The story which, by its nature, I think, is almost
Shakespearean because it's a man dealing with his luck, with his fate, being a
jockey and wrestling with concepts of that, is tough to make happy. And I
think in the original book, the way in which it's made happy is very
unconvincing and, by its nature, the story is 1898 St. Louis, gamblers, fast
women, all sorts of role projections that had to be toned down. And I totally
respect that, but I think in toning it down, they also took a lot of the verve
that was in the original out of the show as well. So by an odd contradiction,
some of the portrayals are probably more offensive in the 1946 version than in
the original 1931 novel.

GROSS: Give me an example of something that you, as a contemporary reader,
find offensive in the original 1946 book for the musical.

Mr. MASLON: I think everyone is so happy. I know that shouldn't be
necessarily offensive but everyone has a kind of, you know, `Golly,
everything's going to work out OK if we just tap dance in Act 2.' And that's
fine. It's a musical convention that obviously is happening across the street
with white musicals but somehow there's a kind of--I think from a contemporary
perspective, 2000 perspective, that we know that to be black in St. Louis in
1898 was a far more complicated issue than is portrayed in the 1946 version.
It's all very musical comedy.

GROSS: So we get into this kind of funny situation where the original book
for this musical, which was written by two highly esteemed African-American
writers from the Harlem renaissance era is being rewritten by a white writer
because people today find the original book too stereotyped and kind of
offensive. It's kind of bizarre in its own way.

Mr. MASLON: It's frightening. I mean, I must say, walking into that first
day of rehearsal and being confronted by this extraordinarily talented local
company of African-Americans and having reconstructed dialogue and written my
own dialogue and trying to assume the idiom of the original, that was really
frightening. I really was concerned, did I have the integrity to do it? And
then something occurred to me in that dark night of the soul that only writers
writing librettos know at 4 AM, that structure has no color, at least in my
opinion. And that what this show really needed was structure. It really
needed to be put back into a certain kind of order that would make some sense
and I went back to the novel and the play and, thank God, I found the
manuscript of the play, the '36 play, at the Schomburg Center up in Harlem's
New York Public Library Center(ph) and that was it. I mean, that was the road
map and I took lines from other characters. Whenever I could, I tried to put
words that these two gentlemen wrote on the page, even if they were from page
97 of the novel from a completely different context or even if it was a
narration that I somehow turned into dialogue. I thought that as long as I
kept that as my compass, I was comfortable trying to create some kind of
contemporary integrity for the piece.

GROSS: Why don't we hear another song from the original cast recording of
"Saint Louis Woman." And I thought we'd hear Harold Nicholas of the great
song and dance team the Nicholas Brothers, singing "Ridin' on the Moon,"
which is a wonderful rhythm song. And maybe you could just tell us a little
bit about how this is used in the original production and how you placed it in
a slightly different context for your book.

Mr. MASLON: Well, we've taken all the fun out of it in our book. Not
exactly, but "Ridin' on the Moon" was...

GROSS: Sell it!

Mr. MASLON: But it's so much more poignant and interesting now. You know,
you'll laugh and you'll cry. What can you ask for? Couldn't ask for anything
more, as Irving Berlin would say. Harold Nicholas plays Li'l Augie, who's
this pint-size bottle of lightning who comes into St. Louis and is this great
jockey and he's been cursed by a man who thinks Li'l Augie has shot him and
he's sort of nervous about his luck going into the Swanee Handicap(ph), which
is the big race. But his girlfriend tells him that she loves him anyway and,
of course, he's ridin' on the moon. And in the original version, that's sort
of the penultimate number and he wins and everything is all swell. In our
version, he has been cursed by this guy and he still sort of can't get out
from under it and "Ridin' on the Moon" happens a little earlier and with a lot
of bravado he goes to the racetrack and runs the big race and what happens in
our production of the big race I will leave up to the paying customers to find
out.

GROSS: Well, OK. This is Harold Nicholas singing "Ridin' on the Moon."

(Soundbite of "Ridin' on the Moon")

Mr. NICHOLAS: (Singing) High luck or low luck or no luck at all, I'll never
care if I rise or I fall. I've learned a lesson since we've been apart. I'll
do all right if I follow my heart. I walk under ladders, number 13 doesn't
scare me, 'cause I'm dressed up in a rainbow and I'm ridin' on the moon. Old
jinx had me cornered, but I found out how to shake it, and my true love helped
me break it. Now I'm ridin' on the moon. Ah, yes, you can preach it, sister,
while I shout for joy. Ah, yes, say hello to lady love, sing it, boy. You're
my ring of roses. No, I can't be heavy-hearted 'cause I'm right back where I
started and I'm ridin' on the moon.

GROSS: Harold Nicholas from the 1946 original cast recording of "Saint Louis
Woman." We heard from Lawrence Maslon, who wrote the new adaptation of "Saint
Louis Woman," commissioned by the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. It
runs through June 25th at the Prince. Coming up, we meet the star of the
revival of "Saint Louis Woman," Vernel Bagneris. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Vernel Bagneris stars in the new Prince Music Theater revival of
"Saint Louis Woman," as the jockey Li'l Augie. He also wrote, directed and
starred in the hit show "One Mo' Time"(ph) and its sequel, "Further Mo',"
and the musical fable "Staggerlee." He won an Obie Award and an Outer Critic
Circle Award(ph) for his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton in his show "Jelly
Roll." Bagneris has appeared in the films "Down By Law" and "Pennies From
Heaven," and he performed on two of programs in FRESH AIR's American Popular
Song series. I want you to hear his singing before we talk since there isn't
a cast recording of the new revival of "Saint Louis Woman." Let's hear him
singing at the Sacramento Jazz Festival as recorded last month for a
forthcoming edition of the public radio jazz series Riverwalk, Live from the
Landing. Here's Vernel Bagneris singing "I'm Confessin'," with pianist John
Sheridan and the Jim Collum Jazz Band.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. VERNEL BAGNERIS: How I long to tell you that I love you. Love finds a
way, so poets say. Every dream I dream is only of you. Come cuddle near, and
listen, dear. I'm confessin' that I love you. Tell me do you love me, too?
I'm confessin' that I need you. Honest, I do, need you every moment. In your
eyes I read such strange things, but your lips deny they're true. Will your
answer really change things making me blue? I'm afraid some day you'll leave
me, saying, `Can't we still be friends?' If you go, you know you grieve me.
All my life on you depends. Am I guessing that you love me? Dreaming dreams
of you in vain? I'm confessin' that I love you over again.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Vernel, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Because you've, in your own shows, in the shows that you've written
and produced, you've really specialized in early jazz and the vaudeville
era...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and because some of those songs come out of, you know, like, the
black face era, you've had to wrestle with a lot of issues pertaining to how
to sing old songs in a contemporary setting...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...and not to feel like you're either offending the audience or
offending yourself...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. Definitely.

GROSS: ...in what you're performing. Now the book for "Saint Louis Woman"
was rewritten...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...in part, I think, because it was considered a little offensive in
having this, like, happy-go-lucky cast.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, it was very offensive in a lot of cases, particularly
when you have things--like the idea that a woman, in order for a man--in order
to believe that a man loves her, he has to beat her. And that was stripped
away.

GROSS: Huh.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, there were lots of moments in it that just--we've grown
way past any of that as a group.

GROSS: "Saint Louis Woman" has an all African-American cast. What's it like
for African-American actors when a casting call goes out for a musical that
has a lot of parts for black performers in it, which is unusual?

Mr. BAGNERIS: It's a celebration. And a job opportunity.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Unfortunately, just 15 years ago, we had an enormous amount of
material that actors and actresses could put themselves into with "You
Being,"(ph) "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "One Mo' Time," and so many different
pieces, but--"The Wiz" and what--that really--I mean, if you look at what is
presented today on Broadway, there are no black shows. And so to resurrect
some feasible material I think is really necessary.

GROSS: It must be hard for you, as an African-American performer, to do the
work that you want to do when there is so few parts for black performers. I'm
wondering if you feel that through much of your career, the roles you've
gotten, or the roles that you haven't gotten have been affected by your color?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh, without a doubt. Yeah. And that's across the board. Not
only have I been prejudiced against on the African-American level, but even,
for example, in Arthur Wilson's(ph) play when you're casting a family, because
being light-skin African-American in my case, I can't get the job there, so
I'm sort of stuck on both sides.

GROSS: You're considered too light for certain black roles?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.

GROSS: Are you told that?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. Blatantly, I would say.

GROSS: What do you respond to--what do you say in response?

Mr. BAGNERIS: You just don't do the audition.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BAGNERIS: You just, `Well, thank you,' and...

GROSS: Oh, you don't even get to the audition. It's...

Mr. BAGNERIS: I get in. And they say, `Well, you know, we really couldn't
use you because you're not going to fit with the family,' or, `You're not
going to be' blah, blah, blah, blah. And so I--`Well, thank you.' `Well, you
can read anyway if you like.' `No, I really don't care to. Thank you.'

GROSS: Is this part of what's led you to do so many productions of your own
where you're the writer, you're the lead performer, you do some of the
producing for it, the directing, so you decide what your musical values are
going to be, what show you want to do, what era you're interested in. You
don't have to worry about somebody else deciding whether you're right for it
or not.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. Basically, I'm driven by necessity, as a performer, as a
writer, as a director. I find the material, or think of the material myself,
and then I go for it, because I really can't depend on casting directors at
this point.

GROSS: Well, you have had a role recently on Broadway in Cy Coleman's
musical, "The Life." And I thought we could play your song from that show,
but before we do, tell us a little bit about your role in the show.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, the role was that of the bartender. It was about
hookers in the '70s on Times Square. And I was the bartender where they all
went for sort of respite. But once a year, I would give this big ball--I was
the emcee of the ball, and the number was used to close up the first act
before intermission, so it had to just come out and kick right from the top.

GROSS: And was this part written--was there an ethnic definition for the
character? Or was the character written as white or African-American? Or was
it open?

Mr. BAGNERIS: No, I think it was pretty open. Originally, on the CD,
however, Bobby Short did the backers' CD.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And so they wanted somebody that kind of go with that
nostalgic sort of feeling that Bobby has.

GROSS: This is Vernel Bagneris from the original cast recording of "The
Life," music by Cy Coleman.

(Soundbite of "The Life")

Mr. BAGNERIS: Everybody saves your bucks. Everybody rent your tux.
Everybody dress deluxe. We're going to the hooker's ball. Invitations in the
mail. Get your baby out of jail. Go ahead and make her bail. You're going
to the hooker's ball. We're going to eat and drink and be merry. We're going
to dance all over the floor. Have a party after party, going to party like
you've never partied before. Dress yourself as bold as brass, give yourself a
touch of class. Hurry up and move your ass. We're going to the hooker's
ball. Through New York and San Francisco, they all come from far and near to
attend this celebration that is held one night a year. All...

GROSS: Vernel Bagneris is now starring in the Prince Music Theater revival of
the musical "Saint Louis Woman." It runs through June 25th in Philadelphia.
Bagneris will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "The Life")

Mr. BAGNERIS: Your time to shine. The fellows shout. And that is...

(Credits)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Vernel Bagneris talks about the musical "Saint Louis
Woman" and his personal history
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Vernel Bagneris, the star of the
new revival of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical, "Saint Louis Woman,"
produced by the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. Bagneris also wrote,
directed and starred in several music reviews, including "One Mo' Time,"
"Staggerly" and "Jelly Roll."

Now, Vernel, your own productions have focused on early jazz and vaudeville,
music from the earlier part of the 20th century. Why do you gravitate to that
era? Is it music that you heard a lot when you were growing up or something
you developed a taste for later?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, I think that it's sort of the richest soup that--it's
where everything sort of grew from, the fertile soil. And, for me, I just
find a great respect for the composers, for the performers at that time. I
mean, they were really breaking ground and it was an exciting moment, and
people always referred to the Harlem Renaissance in the '20s and know about
the literature of it. But it was a renaissance period at that point because
there was so much defiance and self-respect being built and pride. And I can
feel all of that in the music, and the music was a popular music of that time.
So they were really in the swing. It wasn't about nostalgia or whatever. And
I think, also coming from New Orleans, which is the hotbed of jazz and the
birthplace, you just go to the real source.

GROSS: What did you hear growing up in New Orleans?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh, I heard--from a child, I heard the real bottom-line
traditional New Orleans music, the brass bands in the streets for funerals,
and then we had the party bands for christenings and birthday parties. And
people who are now thought of as the legendary founders of the music were
people who were playing at that time. And they were older men at that point
when I was kid, but they were still there.

GROSS: I've never been any place where there's been, like, a funeral brass
band.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So, to me, you know, when there's a funeral, it's a hearse or, you
know, a lot of cars going by with their lights on, and it's a really somber
occasion.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh. Somber, yeah.

GROSS: And when you see the funeral procession going by, you just kind of
stop and get this chill for a few seconds, even when you don't know the people
at all. What was it like for you growing up when a brass band would march by
playing this great music because there was a funeral?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, you realize that it's a celebration of the release of
the person from the miseries that life can present if you're African-American
living in a segregated Southern city, and so it's a party. They've graduated
and they're brought to all places that they helped to make a happy spot,
corner bars and different friends' houses. They passed in front of it and
sort of a last goodbye and a congratulations that you graduated.

I have a book, by the way. I did the text on a photo book from the early jazz
funerals. Well, they're actually from the '60s that Leo Touchet, a
photographer, took these wonderful pictures and I did the text on the book.
It's called "Rejoice When You Die." And that's sort of the bottom line,
rejoice.

GROSS: Did you have any friends or family who had jazz funerals?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh, sure. And understand it, on the way from the church to
the grave site, there is a respect. There's a quiet. But once that body's
been released, it's--in other words, buried--then you party.

GROSS: Now one of the musicals you are well-known for is "One Mo' Time,"
which was meant to be like a revival of a night at the Lyric Theater in 1926.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is what you might have seen on stage there.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you do a lot of songs from the '20s, songs I think, perhaps, that
are even earlier than...

Mr. BAGNERIS: No, they're all...

GROSS: All from the '20s?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Pretty much the '20s.

GROSS: OK. And what are some of the periods issues that you had to deal with
in doing that show?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, I did interviews with people who were still around and
had been to that very theater, to the Lyric Theater, and people who had
experienced the TOBA circuit.

GROSS: That's the Theater Owners Brokering Association...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was alternately known as Tough On Black Asses.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yes. And...

GROSS: It was like the vaudeville circuit for African-Americans.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, definitely. Some of the issues that I dealt with was
the idea of somebody coming in on a--in the colored section of the train,
which had to be second only to the cows and the mules. And then getting off
the train and not being able to find a hotel because blacks weren't allowed in
hotels. And so they had to get to a guest house or something across the
tracks where they could stay. And then they'd come in with this beat-up
suitcase, and out of it comes the gown or a suit, and then they hit center
stage and become a star.

And I think that that's incredible, because part of the whole pumping up of
getting to that stage and being there is a treatment that you can receive at
the hotel, in the restaurant, whatever. And they got nothing of it and they
were still able to get out there in a center--on center stage in a
(unintelligible) spot and hit it and give everything they had. And Bessie
Smith could not get into a restaurant and eat afterwards--after a show. And
yet that didn't stop them because they knew they had something to offer. They
had talent. They had spirit.

They used the performances to say things that were not--that they couldn't say
because there were laws that no more than six blacks could gather in one place
at one time without being considered a mob. And so they were able--and in
church, they couldn't say certain things as a community. So they used this
space to have social messages, to communicate respect to each other as a unit,
to build each other's self-respect. And all those things I try to add in
through the structure of vaudeville jokes. How come we always got to stay at
a place where hot and cold water means hot in the summer and cold in the
winter? You know, they're complaining, but it's not the black defiance, as
much as it's through the structure of the black vaudeville joke, the way
vaudevillians would treat material.

GROSS: Well, I happen to have the original cast recording cued up.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Oh, OK.

GROSS: Why don't we hear you singing "Cake Walking Babies"...

Mr. BAGNERIS: OK.

GROSS: ...from the original cast recording of "One Mo' Time"?

Mr. BAGNERIS: OK.

GROSS: Introduce the song for us.

Mr. BAGNERIS: "Cake Walking Babies," it goes back--"Cake Walking Babies" goes
back actually to an earlier period of the cake-walk being a number that slaves
would use to make fun of the manners of the white owners. And then it became
a vaudeville number. This one--by the time it hit the '20s, this is actually
just a number.

GROSS: OK. So here's the number.

Mr. BAGNERIS: OK.

GROSS: "Cake Walking Babies" sung by my guest, Vernel Bagneris.

(Soundbite from "Cake Walking Babies" from the cast recording of "One Mo'
Time")

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Cakewalkers may come, cakewalkers may go, but I want
to tell you about this couple I know. They're high-stepping gals and
debonair. When it comes to business, not a soul can compare.

Female Chorus: (Singing) Here they come.

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Well, here they come.

Female Chorus: (Singing) Look at them ...(unintelligible) go in song.

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) They go in song.

Female Chorus: (Singing) Look at them syncopated talk of the town, easing
around, screeching amongst them and a laying them down. Dancing fools.

Mr. BAGNERIS: They dancing fools.

Female Chorus: (Singing) That's what they like to call them.

Mr. BAGNERIS and Female Chorus: (Singing) They're in a class of their own.
The only way for them to lose is to cheat them. You may try, but you never
beat 'em.

Female Chorus: (Singing) Strut your stuff.

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) I'll strut the stuff.

Female Chorus: (Singing) They don't do nothing.

Mr. BAGNERIS and Female Chorus: (Singing) They're cakewalking babies from
home...

GROSS: That's "Cake Walking Babies" from the original cast recording of "One
Mo' Time," which was written, directed and starred my guest Vernel Bagneris.
And sorry for the couple of scratches you heard there. In my defense, I'll
say this has not been reissued on CD. So it's from--the recording's from the
early '80s.

Vernel Bagneris is now starring in a new production of the Harold Arlen-Johnny
Mercer musical "Saint Louis Woman," which is being performed now at the Prince
Music Theater in Philadelphia.

Mr. BAGNERIS: I must tell you, Terry, that "One Mo' Time," in its glory,
right now--you know, it's a hit musical and blah, blah. But we started it on
$500 in my living room.

GROSS: Performing in your living room?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, we were rehearsing it in the living room...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BAGNERIS: ...and the band was in the kitchen. And we opened for one
night only in New Orleans on 500 bucks to get together the set and the
costumes. And to see that growth is just amazing. We wound up with seven
touring companies of it and a royal command performance for the queen in
London and the West End run and--yeah, it's just amazing what a dream can
become.

GROSS: My guest is Vernel Bagneris. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Vernel Bagneris. He's starring in the new revival of the
Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical "Saint Louis Woman."

I want to hear a little bit about your life, Vernel. Tell me a little bit
about your family. You're from a Creole family?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah, a Creole family in New Orleans.

GROSS: What does that mean exactly?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Creole--in New Orleans, it means part black, French, Spanish
and American Indian. It's sort of a four-part thing. And we had our own
culture in a sense. We had--well, the writer for the book of "Saint Louis
Woman" was a Creole, Arna Bontemps. And he was friends with Gene Tumer, who
was a Creole from New Orleans. So there was a lot of literary people that
came out of it. They had their own language, Creole French.

GROSS: Do you speak it?

Mr. BAGNERIS: No. My father did, but they used it as an adult language.

GROSS: Oh, kind of like Yiddish and Jewish houses...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...so the kids don't hear.

Mr. BAGNERIS: So the kids don't hear you, right. And that's unfortunate.
But certainly people know the food which, to me, was sort of everyday cooking.
But I'm surprised I'm not 300 pounds.

GROSS: You're sure not.

Mr. BAGNERIS: But we had--you know, we had a culture with music. Jelly Roll
Morton was a Creole. It had its own standards.

GROSS: Tell us something more about your parents and their parents.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, my mother's name is Gloria Maria Diaz, and so obviously,
her side is Spanish-oriented. My father was until last year...

GROSS: Oh, sorry.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. Lawrence Bagneris from the French side of it. And they
were very, very--I mean, the values are extremely based in Roman Catholic
tradition. And it's an extremely family-oriented society--your uncles and
your aunts and the idea that everybody sort of pitched together. There was no
such thing as you could have and the person down the block didn't. It was a
very open, giving sort of environment that I grew up in.

GROSS: What was your attitude toward different ethnic groups, considering how
many ethnic groups were in your family alone?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, that was the thing. There was so many ethnic groups
that you couldn't have a prejudice. My grandmother, for example--my father's
mother--was literally from Toulon, France. She spoke only French. She was
white. And my father's father was from Haiti, and so he was part black and
part--and he also spoke French. So they moved into this Creole area and they
felt comfortable there.

Everybody--I mean, there was no--Creoles were not--they were light-skinned for
the most part, but they were not forgiven, as far as racial prejudice was
concerned. I remember as a child drinking from a colored water fountain, and
we always understood that our black blood was first. You weren't excused from
anything. You sat in the back of the bus, the whole bit. Civil rights time
came--I think that, a lot of Creoles were foremost politically, as far as
getting in lawyers and things like that, getting in and trying to get the laws
changed. So we were completely open to white, black. It just didn't matter
because they may be your cousin.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And people chose, sometimes strictly for financial reasons. I
remember my aunt, who's still alive in California, she and her sisters would
go to work every morning--there was four of them. And three of them would go
across the street to a colored cigar-rolling factory as--where they rolled
cigars. And she would go across the street to the white one because they made
$2 more an hour. And she thought, `Well, I'm going to go for the money.' But
on the way home, they'd all get on the same streetcar and get back home.

GROSS: Hm.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And it was a choice you made. If you wanted to have that
pressure in your life of trying to pass, you went on and did that; and if it
made more financial sense for you. Or if you didn't, you didn't.

GROSS: Did you have people in your family who passed?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah. And some actually went to the point of sort of
distancing themselves from the family. I remember at my grandmother's
funeral, my father was furious because his two older brothers came to the
funeral, and he'd always thought that they had passed for white and left and
never really communicated with the family. But actually, they were products
of her first marriage to a white guy, and they were white.

GROSS: It's confusing, isn't it?

Mr. BAGNERIS: So he had to refigure, once they told him the real story of it,
because he just thought that they were brothers who had passed.

GROSS: That's funny. Well, let me play another recording of yours. And this
is actually something you recorded on FRESH AIR, when you were doing your
"Jelly Roll Morton" show. And in that--it was basically a music review and
you played Jelly Roll Morton.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah.

GROSS: Morten Gunnar Larsen was the pianist. And you not only sang Morton's
songs, but you took excerpts of his monologues from the Library of Congress
recordings...

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...and did those monologues as part of the show.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So it was really a great piece. Well, so let's hear your recording of
"Sweet Substitute" from the FRESH AIR interview that you did in 1992. This
has Morten Gunnar Larsen at the piano.

(Soundbite from "Sweet Substitute")

Mr. BAGNERIS: (Singing) Sweet substitute, sweet substitute, she tells me
that she's mine, all mine, does anything I tell her. Love is blind. She's
got such loving ways always, got my head in a daze. She's mighty cute, my new
recruit, my sweet substitute. Don't want no regulars, my sweet substitute.

GROSS: That's Vernel Bagneris and pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen, recorded in
the FRESH AIR studio in 1992.

Now I'm going to let you go in a second, because you have a show tonight.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Yeah.

GROSS: What's it like for you on the day of performance? Do--are there
things you try to do or try not to do when you know you're going to be on
stage that night?

Mr. BAGNERIS: You lay low...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAGNERIS: ...basically.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAGNERIS: And you eat certain things.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. BAGNERIS: Well, you eat fruit and vegetables and no spices or bell
pepper or things that will let you know you ate them earlier. You just try
to keep everything at a smooth level.

GROSS: Well, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you.

Mr. BAGNERIS: No pepperoni pizza.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, really.

Mr. BAGNERIS: Great. Thank you, Terry. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Vernel Bagneris is currently in Philadelphia starring in the Prince
Music Theater revival of the Arlen-Mercer musical "Saint Louis Woman." It
runs through June 25th.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on what's happening in teen pop. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New wave of music from Britney Spears and Hanson
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is a time when teen pop music rules the charts. The Backstreet Boys, 'N
Sync, Britney Spears and Hanson all have current hits in a world that only a
few months ago was dominated by more hard-core rap and rock music. Rock
critic Ken Tucker has a review of Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" and
Hanson's "This Time Around." Here's Britney Spears' new interpretation of The
Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

(Soundbite of Britney Spears singing "Satisfaction")

Ms. BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) I can't get no satisfaction, I can't get no
satisfaction. And I try, and I try, and I try, and I try.

Female Chorus: (Singing) I can't get no satisfaction.

Ms. SPEARS: When I'm driving in my car and that man comes on the radio and
telling me more and more about some useless information supposed to
fire my imagination, I can't get no. No, no, no.

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Britney Spears will receive no abuse from me for tackling The Rolling Stones
on her new CD. I don't just like her nerve. I like her version. It sure as
heck beats the sort of dance music The Stones themselves have tried to pull
off over the past couple of decades. If Britney's bubble-gum ballads and
power pop tunes don't have the harmonic muscle of the best of the Backstreet
Boys and 'N Sync, Spears make her little trill of a voice with its
conversational gulps and sighs work for her.

(Soundbite of Britney Spears singing)

Ms. SPEARS: (Singing) Early morning, she wakes up. Knock, knock, knock on
the door. It's time for makeup, a perfect mouth. Let's do it all week, oh,
baby. Isn't she lovely, this Hollywood girl? And they say she's lucky.
She's a star. But she drives right by in her lonely car thinking if there's
nothing missing in my life, then why do these tears come at night?

TUCKER: Rock fans who don't want to admit the pleasures of the new teen acts
point to Hanson as the real thing; that is, the fact that these three brothers
play their own instruments and write their own songs gives them an
authenticity that automatically makes them superior to Britney and the rest.
That argument is pre-modernist hooey, of course, and it does little to explain
what's really pleasurable about Hansen's music.

(Soundbite of Hanson singing)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) It's getting colder in this ditch where I lie.
Well, I'm feeling older and I'm wondering why. Well, I heard they told her it
was live or die. Well, I didn't know her, but I know why she lied. I didn't
know her, but I know why she died. Yeah.

Group: (Singing) Well, you can't say I didn't give it, I won't wait another
minute. I'm on my way this time around. Oh, yeah. You can't say...

TUCKER: Three years ago before the onslaught of current teen pop, Hanson put
out a glowing single called "Mmm Bop" that was a perfect pop song and followed
it up with a solid debut album. Now re-entering a different commercial
landscape surrounded by contemporaries who are slicker and more sexually
aggressive, Hanson retrenches on its album "This Time Around." If there's no
song here as gravvy as "MMM Bop," there's still a lot of good fun and good
ambition, as on this Latin-tinged rave-up "Can't Stop Thinking About You."

(Soundbite from Hanson's "Can't Stop Thinking About You")

Group: (Singing) Well, can't stop thinking about you. No, I can't stop
thinking about you.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Morning, day or night, I tremble at your sight.
It's impossible to fight. I'm shy. Now you're in my head and your mind I've
read. Coarse are the words you said. Now I...

Group: (Singing) ...can't stop thinking about you. I can't get you off my
mind. No, I can't stop thinking about you. I'm thinking about you all the
time. Can't stop thinking about you. I can't get you off my mind. No, I
can't stop thinking about you. I'm thinking about you all the time.

TUCKER: I like the way both Hanson and Britney Spears approach rock history
as an open book, as something they can flip through and explore without being
intimidated or turned off. Whether it's The Rolling Stones or what my ears
hear as Hanson's interest in unexpected influences like '60s groups such as
The Blues Project or Blood, Sweat & Tears, these kids know that music is there
to be used, messed with, spruced up, killed or kissed.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Soundbite of Britney Spears music)

(Credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of Britney Spears singing)

Ms. SPEARS: (Singing) I think I did it again, I made you believe we're more
than just friends. Oh, baby, it might seem like a...

(Credits given)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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