(l to r) Stephanie Umoh and Vivian Reed.
By Matthew Wexler
Hallelujah! Stephanie Umoh returns to the York Theatre Company to take on the iconic role of Georgina in the Musicals in Mufti staging of Hallelujah, Baby!. The Tony Award-winning musical has fallen off of the radar since it’s 1967 premiere. The musical features music by Jule Styne, who is being showcased throughout the York’s Mufti season, along with lyrics by Adolf Green and Betty Comden, and a book by Arthur Laurents. This production also features Tony Award nominee Vivian Reed.
Following the trials and tribulations of an ambitious young African American woman from her humble beginnings as a maid on a plantation to a successful stage career, Hallelujah, Baby! was ahead of its time concerning its themes. Umoh, whose Broadway credits include Junk, Falsettos, and Ragtime, has been immersed in quickly learning the show as part of the staged reading series. The Broadway Blog caught up with her just before the show’s first performance.
It’s great to see you back at the York after appearing last year in Jerry’s Girls — what’s appealing to you about the theater’s Musical in Mufti series?
I love the idea of revisiting these lesser known musicals. It’s almost like they’ve been in a Broadway vault somewhere and we’re able to take them out and bring them back to life.
Even if I’m stressed out trying to learn pages and pages of music, it’s good as an actor to exercise that part of my brain. It’s challenging… and love I challenges. Also, the York is a family. I’ve been doing [the series] for years now and it’s a really special experience. Some audiences have never heard this music before.
It seems like now is the perfect time to be revisiting Hallelujah, Baby, given our current political climate. What are some of the show’s themes that you think will resonate with today’s audiences?
It was a different world when the show first opened in the late 60s, but we still face themes of racism today. I think the play was ahead of its time in the way it expressed how black people existed and maneuvered around a white world. It’s still 100 percent relevant. A woman like Georgina could only make it so far because of her skin color, and we still see that in the workforce. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond. The difference now is that there is more of a platform with social media and how we connect and make our voices heard.
Are any changes being made to Arthur Laurents’ original script?
We’re blending two scripts: the original from the 1967 production and also rewrites that were part of a 2005 production that our director, Gerry McIntyre, worked on. We’ve also been given permission to make small changes.
For those not familiar with the musical, how would you describe your character of Georgina?
She’s a young African American woman and the show chronicles her time from the early 1900s as a maid at a plantation home through the 1950s as she strives to become a successful performer. Along the way, she meets a booking agent, who puts her in a play that launches her career. They fall in love, but she is already in a relationship. Through the decades and the social, economic, and cultural changes, she figures out her place as a woman, and particularly as a black woman.
Leslie Uggams originated and won a Tony Award for her role as rising star Georgina. She’s also famous for a cult-favorite performance at the White House when a grip dropped her cue cards for “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and she flubbed her way through lyrics in front of millions of television viewers. Do you have anything comparable?
In the Falsettos revival, I was understudying all three female roles: Cordelia, Charlotte, and Trina. I joined the when the company had started technical rehearsals. One or two weeks into previews, Stephanie J. Block, who played Trina, got sick… and then her understudy got sick. I was the only one in the house that could do it, but I’d never had a music rehearsal, let along staging, which was quite complicated.
I got the call and we had four hours until the matinee. They had to pin the costumes on me and around 11:30 a.m. we started at the beginning of the show and went through it. I had a 45-minute music rehearsal and went on with the script in my hand. I didn’t have time for fear.
During Trina’s big song, “I’m Breaking Down,” she’s on stage by herself. There are a lot of lyrics and props, including a huge kitchen knife. I’ve got the book in my hand and I’m trying to do the choreography. The blade goes flying off the handle into the air and I just prayed that it didn’t land in the audience! That was my Leslie Uggams moment.
Leslie Uggams explains her ‘June’ mishap to Seth Rudetsky.
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
Through February 4.