By Kristi Casey Sanders
Thirty years ago, Ain’t Misbehavin’ — the original jukebox musical — premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club and transferred to Broadway. The evening of Fats Waller songs launched the careers of artists such as Nell Carter, Irene Cara and André DeShields, and won several awards, including the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. It also won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, which went to the show’s co-creator Richard Maltby Jr. (Miss Saigon, Fosse, Big). Maltby also directed the 30th Anniversary version of the show, which kicks off its national tour in Atlanta this month, starring “American Idol” veterans Ruben Studdard, Frenchie Davis and Trenyce Cobbins.
“I’m immensely proud of this show,” Maltby says. “It’s a tribute to the artists who forged the way. All the black artists who are successful today are standing on the shoulders of these people [who] did it when it was really hard. It was hard to get a recording contract; it was hard to get a record out. They did it simply by being so talented that they couldn’t be ignored. … Nowadays, you can be heard if you’re singing at 16, and you can be famous by the time you’re 17 or 18. All that happens because of the trails that were blazed by the jazz artists of the 30s. Any young person looking at the show should [realize] ‘that’s where I came from.'”
The inspiration for this production’s casting came from an unlikely source. “I watched the Ruben Studdard year of ‘American Idol’  and was thinking, ‘These kids are so unbelievably talented.’ And then I [realized], when I cast Ain’t Misbehavin’, all those people were in their 20s. As it’s gone on, the show’s been [remounted] with people who have done the show before, so we’ve gotten used to the show being played [by] older performers. I thought, ‘Why not get these young artists? Wouldn’t the show benefit from having this kind of youth?'”
Maltby began work on Ain’t Misbehavin’ soon after graduating from Yale University. His friend Murray Horwitz, a jazz buff, convinced him to collaborate on a new musical based on the life of Fats Waller (born Thomas Wright). They did a lot of research, but ultimately scrapped the project when they discovered his life had no real second act. When Manhattan Theatre Club’s Artistic Director Lynne Meadow asked them for a nightclub version to fill a hole in the theater’s season schedule, Maltby and Horwitz found the inspiration needed to finish the show.
A series of accidents gave Ain’t Misbehavin’ its final structure. Maltby wrote the show with a particular actress in mind. When she turned down the role, open auditions were held. “In came Armelia McQueen, who is bizarre and has this glorious voice and seems like she’s from this other planet, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic,'” Maltby remembers. “Half an hour after that, Nell Carter came in and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic.’ I could only hire one of them, and I couldn’t make up my mind, so I hired them both and then built the evening to a song in which where they both had high notes, so no matter what had happened before or after, you’d have a show-stopper.” When the slender Irene Cara came in to audition, Maltby got the idea to cast her as a physical contrast to McQueen and Carter, and have the larger women gang up on her. He also realized that if he cast two men instead of three, there would always be one woman left out when people coupled up. That tension, Maltby discovered, gave the show a multitude of plots with only five characters.
Maltby says he wanted to helm a 30th Anniversary production to remind audiences of what the musical is really about. “It has been done by other people, and every time I see it, I feel as if other directors and choreographers have sort of missed the point and the dignity that’s in the show. You could be a star in a Harlem nightclub, but if you went downtown, the only parts available [to black actors] were a maid or a slave. You could be a member of the band at the Waldorf-Astoria, but you weren’t allowed to walk through the lobby. Tin Pan Alley ripped off songs by the great writers and published them with other people’s names on them. So underneath the comedy of [the show’s songs], there’s something serious the whole time.”
The really fun part of creating a musical, Maltby says, is that it exists as the sum of many parts. “The magic that you feel in the theater is not just the words or the music or the staging or the scenery, but some other thing that is a combination of all of them, plus something else that affects the heart. You don’t actually ever know that it’s happened, because it’s a very intimate connection between the stage and every individual in the audience.
“Sometimes you sit back and say, ‘Oh, my God, there it is. It’s really happened!’ Which is what happened with Ain’t Misbehavin’. … It’s just one of the most entertaining shows that ever was.”
Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre Nov. 17-23. To hear Maltby in his own words and read more about the creation of the musical.