Dedicated to the Ones We Loved: a Trip into Rock ‘N Roll History

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Baby It’s You
Broadhurst Theater
235 W. 44th Street
New York, N.Y.

It was October of 1965 and I was visiting Syracuse University with my dad. I was a senior in high school and looking at prospective colleges. The Syracuse home football game had just ended in victory and the bands started to play on the porches of the long rows of fraternity and sorority houses that dotted the University. Students danced on the lawns. My Dad and I walked towards a huge crowd of students, so large that the police had closed half the street so that they could surge off the lawn on to the pavement. The crowd was there because the entertainment on the porch was the Shirelles, one of the biggest rock and roll groups in the country.

I told my Dad I was going to Syracuse. Any University good enough to host the Shirelles was good enough for me.

Last week, 46 years later, I caught up with Baby It’s You, the new musical in New York about the Shirelles. Now, at last, after all these years, I had a chance to study the history of rock and roll and the Shirelles’ place in it.

Baby It’s You is a lot of fun and anyone who loves rock music and/or the Shirelles should go and see it. Is it Hsmlet? No. Is it Long Day’s Journey into Night? No. But it is two hours of finger snapping music and a long trip down memory lane and yet another look at the world the rock and rollers of the 1950s and ‘60s lived in. It was a world of huge crowds, top ten charts and radio stations that played music all night long, but it was also a world of payoffs for air play and racism. Baby It’s You gets into all of that as it tells the story of one of the great girl groups of all time.

The play is the story of Florence Greenberg, the white Jewish woman who discovered the four African American girls who became the Shirelles in Passaic, New Jersey in the late 1950s. The girls pull Florence into show business and start a career for her that lasted the rest of her life. She became the head of Scepter records and one of the most prominent women in show business.

You never heard of Florence? Neither did I. Neither did most people. That’s why Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott wrote the book and Sheldon Epps joined them as assistant director with Mutrux. Florence’s story was an intriguing one, like all music stories, but it was more than that – it was a trip through the American landscape from the quiet days of the Eisenhower Administration to the turbulence of the late 1960s and 1970s. It was full of payola, white only hotels, interracial romances and hit after hit after hit from Florence, the Shirelles and Scepter records.

The four Shirelles (played by Christiana Sajous, Crystal Starr, Erica Ash and Kyra DaCosta) had a dozen big hits, including Dedicated to the One I Love, Tonight’s the Night, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, He’s So Fine, Soldier Boy, Foolish Little Girl and Baby It’s You. Most of them are sung in the show, with real flair. Audiences love it. Music by other Scepter records stars, such as Dionne Warwick (Walk on By) and Kingsman (Louie, Louie), are also featured.

Baby It’s You is a combination backstage drama and musical revue. It has its hits and misses, good moments and dead ones, but, overall, it is well crafted salute to the Shirelles and their 1960s world.

The heart of the show is the story of how Florence Greenberg flourishes as music head. She becomes an influential producer (she not only had a long string of hits, but won the Oscar for Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), a woman operating in a man’s world, and an unknown. Her road is filled with trouble, though. She falls in love with an African American song writer, Luther Dixon, and leaves her hard working husband in Passaic for him. She gets outfoxed by other record companies, earns a lot of money and loses a lot of money and doesn’t have much time for her two children. Her road is bumpy, despite all the fabulous music she hears on it.

The Shirelles may be listed as the stars of the show, but the real star is Greenberg. She is on stage practically the entire two hours. Beth Leavel was nominated for a Tony for playing Florence, and justifiably so. She plays Greenberg as a strong, solid woman who weathers the show business storms. She also has a deft ear for good music. There are also fine performances by Allan Louis (Luther), Geno Henderson (Jocko), Kelli Barrett ( Greenberg’s daughter), Barry Pearl (her husband), Brandon Uranowitz (her son)

While Baby It’s You is a delightful stroll through music history, it has its problems. Florence’s surge to the top of the music business seems terribly easy and it could not have been. The story moves from rags to riches too quickly. The four Shirelles are too good to be true; didn’t anything both them? Florence’s relationship with her husband is presented well, but the reasons why she falls for songwriter Dixon remain a bit cloudy. The show also does very little with racism in the 1950s and 60s. There is a scene in which the Shirelles, the top singing group in the world, are barred from an all white hotel in Atlanta. In another scene, Florence and Luther have to stay at an all-black hotel, but that’s it. Much of the story of rock and roll is how white entertainers used black music to make a lot of money, but there is no mention of that here. Here, the Shirelles just soar through the sky in a segregated America without so much as a nod to racism.

Baby It’s You has a good story, but does not have the serious book of some other musicals like it, such as The Jersey Boys, and it does not have the development of relationships, such as in Million Dollar Quartet. The story on stage ends with the Shirelles starting to slip off the charts, which is unfortunate. The group went through numerous new versions of itself in later years, bringing in new singers, and was one of the more popular revival groups of the 1980s. There were later law suits and clashes with Florence, fights and makeups. The play could have added some of that to give the story some more vitality. The story was overly simplified and seemed terribly rushed.

Baby It’s You  is one of several jukebox musicals on Broadway this year and while not the best, it is pretty good. Rock ‘n roll enthusiasts will love it.

You all will still love them tomorrow, too…

PRODUCTION: Producers: Warner Bros. Theater Ventures,. American Pop Anthology, Universal Music Group and Pasadena Playhouse. Sets: Anna Louizos, Costumes: Lizz Wolf, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Sound: Carl Casella,. Choreography by Birgitte Mutrux. Directors: Floyd Mutrux and Sheldon Epps.

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