A New 'Cabin In The Sky' Offers Universal Stories — And A Problematic Past

Feb 10, 2016
Originally published on February 10, 2016 6:36 pm

Today, Cabin in the Sky is best remembered as a 1943 movie starring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong — but it started as a hit Broadway musical, most of whose original music didn't make it to the screen. When producer Jack Viertel began thinking about a revival of the stage show, all he had to go on were a few period recordings, a script and a handwritten piano/vocal score.

"The score is so sophisticated and so fascinating," Viertel says, "and so steeped in the kind of jazz that Duke Ellington was beginning to write — not minstrel show jazz, so to speak. And I felt like, we simply have to expose this. It's too good."

Now, those forgotten songs are being resurrected in a series of concert performances, beginning tonight at New York City Center.

Viertel brought in orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who has worked on most of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, to reconstruct the original songs by Vladimir Dukelsky, better known as Vernon Duke. Tunick is also a jazz guy — and he says the classically trained Russian composer could definitely swing.

"He became sort of a protégé of Gershwin," Tunick says, "who suggested that he change his name and concentrate on writing popular songs — which he became really quite good at."

Think "April in Paris" — or the Cabin song "Taking a Chance on Love," which Ethel Waters performed in both the film and stage version.

For the concert performances, Tony Award-winning actress LaChanze is stepping into Waters' shoes. She plays Petunia, the religious woman who loves her morally challenged husband unconditionally.

"My challenge was not playing the style of the period," LaChanze says, "as much as I wanted to play the truth of a woman who's just in love. And so that's how I approach this role, because no matter what decade you're in, women falling in love with bad guys happens every hour."

Cabin in the Sky is kind of a folk tale about representatives from heaven and hell battling for the soul of a gambler. The story contains more than a whiff of paternalism, if not outright racism. But Viertel says he learned some important lessons in his years working with legendary African-American playwright August Wilson.

"The culture, he believed — and I think he's right — is richer for recognizing this material and examining it and putting it out in the world," he says, "rather than hiding from the more unpleasant aspects of its innate racism."

Cabin in the Sky was originally written and produced by white men. So after making some edits himself, Viertel brought in Ruben Santiago-Hudson not only to direct the show, but work on the text. Santiago-Hudson says Viertel took the obvious things out.

"It's easy for people that aren't in my culture to see the things that are offensive or sketchy," Santiago-Hudson says. "It's hard, unless you really know the culture, to know the little things that are very important. And so all the little nuance and little things — little words like 'wretched' or 'lazy' that have been linked to African-American people since we were thrown on the soil here — those things are gone."

That's not to say that the original Broadway cast — which included singer Todd Duncan and dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham, in addition to Ethel Waters — didn't make their opinions known to director George Balanchine.

"Balanchine said, 'Okay, you guys do you. Show me what is important to you and then I'll make sure it's staged right,'" Santiago-Hudson says. "He didn't come in and tell black people how to be black people."

Ruben Santiago-Hudson says while there are problematic aspects to Cabin in the Sky, the music is worth resurrecting, and the story is still worth telling.

"These stories have been told forever: about temptation, good and evil, making choices," he says. "It's what they teach us on church on Sunday. And then our mothers and fathers teach us to make good choices, the right choices, according to what they think life should be ...That's what this play is about. And love."

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

These days, "Cabin In The Sky" is best remembered as the 1943 movie starring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. It started as a hit Broadway musical. Though the original music was all but lost, audiences will hear it again in a series of concerts beginning tonight in New York. And Jeff Lunden reports on why, despite the show's outdated attitudes on race, the artists behind this revival want to reexamine it.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: All that existed for "Cabin In The Sky" was a script, a handwritten piano-vocal score, some period recordings and that 1943 MGM film which cut most of the songs. So producer Jack Viertel had to figure out how to reconstruct a piece composed by Vladimir Dukelsky, a classically trains Russian.

JACK VIERTEL: The score is so sophisticated and so fascinating and so steeped in the kind of jazz that Duke Ellington was beginning to write - not minstrel show just, so to speak. And I felt, like, we simply have to expose this. It's too good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Viertel brought in orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who worked on most of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. But he's also a jazz guy and says Dukelsky, who changed his name to Vernon Duke, could swing.

JONATHAN TUNICK: And he became sort of a protege of Gershwin, who suggested that he change his name and concentrate on writing popular songs, which he became really quite good at.

LUNDEN: Think "April In Paris" or the hit tune Duke wrote for "Cabin In The Sky," "Taking A Chance On Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE")

ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Here I go again. I'm hearing trumpets flow again, all aglow again, taking a chance on love.

LUNDEN: That's Ethel Waters, who starred in the original Broadway production. Tony Award-winning actress LaChanze is stepping into her shoes for the concert performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE")

LACHANZE: (Singing) Things are mending now. I see a rainbow blending now. We'll have a happy ending now, taking a chance on love.

LUNDEN: She plays Petunia, the religious woman who loves her morally-challenged husband unconditionally.

LACHANZE: My challenge was not playing the style of the period as much as I wanted to play the truth of a woman who's just in love. And so that's how I approached this role because no matter what decade you're in, women falling in love with bad guys happens every hour.

LUNDEN: "Cabin In The Sky" is kind of a folktale about representatives from heaven and hell battling for the soul of a gambler. It contains more than a whiff of paternalism, if not outright racism. But producer Jack Viertel says he learned some important lessons working over the years with legendary African-American playwright August Wilson.

VIERTEL: The culture, he believed - and I think he's right - is richer for recognizing this material and examining it and putting it out in the world, rather than hiding from the more unpleasant aspects of its innate racism.

LUNDEN: "Cabin In The Sky" was originally written and produced by white men. So after making some edits himself, Viertel brought in Ruben Santiago-Hudson not only to direct the show, but work on the text.

RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: He took the obvious things out. It's easy for people that aren't in my culture to see the things that are offensive or sketchy. It's hard, unless you really know the culture, to know the little things that are very important - little words like wretched or lazy that have been linked to African-American people since we were thrown on the soil here. Those things are gone.

LUNDEN: That's not to say that the original cast, which in addition to Ethel Waters included singer Todd Duncan and dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham, didn't make their opinions known to director George Balanchine.

SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Balanchine said, OK, you guys do you. Show me what is important to you, and then I'll make sure it's staged right. He didn't come in and tell black people how to be black people or people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CABIN IN THE SKY")

WATERS: (Singing) That is why my heart is flying high, mister, because I know we'll have our cabin in the sky.

LUNDEN: Ruben Santiago-Hudson says, while there are problematic aspects to "Cabin In The Sky," not only is the music worth resurrecting, the story is still worth telling.

SANTIAGO-HUDSON: These stories have been told forever about temptation, good and evil, making choices. That's what they teach us in church on Sunday. And then, you know, our mothers and fathers teach us to make good choices, the right choices according to what they think life should be, a good, God-fearing person should do. That's what this play is about - and love.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.