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Stagger Lee: Part 2 – Making The Music

by Jerome Weeks 29 Jan 2015 7:51 AM
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Justin Ellington in the rehearsal room at the Wyly Theatre. Photo: Dane Walters

Part 2 of our series chronicling the development of the Dallas Theater Center‘s new musical, Stagger Lee, moves to the other half of the primary creative team: co-composer Justin Ellington. It was hip-hop artist and playwright Will Power who had the original idea of melding figures from old songs like “Staggerlee” into a kind of modern African-American mythology, a stage show about black people pushing to build lives for themselves. But it was his collaborator Ellington who suggested they go big — make Stagger Lee into a multi-decade chronicle not only of that push but also the music they created along the way: ragtime, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, doo-wop, funk.

More than a year ago, the Theater Center gave the team here at Art&Seek unusual access to track the creation of this musical, which opens tomorrow night at the Wyly Theatre. It’s a rare premiere for the Theater Center because it’s being made entirely in Dallas. Plus, it has an all-African-American cast (half from New York, half from North Texas) with a creative team that’s mostly black as well — from the writer and composer to the director, choreographer and lighting designer.

The result of that year-long access is our continuing digital storytelling project that follows this show’s creative origins, rehearsal process, artistic choices. So Jerome Weeks sat down at the piano with composer-music director Ellington to have him spell out on the keys the choices he made that turned Stagger Lee into an epic musical history.

On the project site, you can:

    • Read an expanded version of Jerome’s radio piece.
    • Watch Dane Walter’s video of Ellington outlining his music and its historical contexts with vintage footage plus scenes from the actual stage show.
    • Listen to the many artists who’ve tackled the great American standard, “Frankie and Johnny,” one of the other classic songs Will Power used as source material for Stagger Lee.
    • And you can catch up with the first sections of the project: a profile of Power, videos of how the opening number “St. Louis” was shaped and re-shaped in rehearsals and workshops over the course of a year and some of the many musical versions of the original ‘murder ballad,’ “Staggerlee.”