A classic R&B song about an illicit love affair is the basis of a new musical that has brought the unmistakable 'Sound of Philadelphia' back to the City of Brotherly Love.
Stasia DeMarco has the story behind 'Me and Mrs. Jones,' starring Grammy award winner Lou Rawls
The popular music of the 70's has returned to its birthplace, Philadelphia, thanks to singer Lou Rawls, whose voice has been called as "sweet as sugar" and as "soft as velvet." Earlier this year, Mr. Rawls was starring in the musical "Smokey Joe's Cafe" on Broadway. He calls the production, which featured a series of songs, more of a concert than a play, and he thought he'd try a different approach.
He wanted to tell a story through the music. "If you look at the list of songs we have in the show you could just connect the songs which we've done really and they do tell a story," he says. "They are a story within themselves."
So Mr. Rawls purchased the rights to the supremely soulful "Mighty Three Catalog," also known as The Sound Of Philadelphia, which includes songs made famous by performers like the Spinners, the O'Jays and Lou Rawls himself. Then he set out to find an investor. "I met with a producer named Murray Schwartz who had retired. I told him my idea and said, 'do you want to come out of retirement for awhile and have some fun?' And he said, 'sure!' We started talking about the idea and I told him what I had in mind.~ We started to say what name would we use and Murray said why don't we use 'Me & Mrs. Jones' because there are a lot of Me & Mrs. Joneses around the world, and I said, yeah that's true," he says.
Mr. Rawls asked Charles Randolph-Wright and Kathleen McGhee Anderson to write an urban love story based on the Grammy-winning song about a man having an affair with a married woman. They came up with a romantic comedy about three couples. The central characters are a married judge played by Lou Rawls, who falls in love with a married woman - Mrs. Jones, played by Nita Whittaker. Most of the action takes place in a bar filled with the singers and songwriters whose musings sparked the famous songs that are the Philly Sound.
In addition to writing the script, Charles Randolph-Wright directs the musical. He explains that in the 70's, songwriters wrote in such a way that the songs themselves became the dialogue. "They were relating a specific experience and a specific story and these songs definitely tell stories and that's why I think they are so available for dialogue," he says.
Mr. Randolph-Wright adds that this music doesn't just tell a story. It's a part of American history. "In the 70's, we were so hopeful, and this music represents that. There's a simplicity to it that tells us, We gotta wake up. We've gotta do what we did before. And it's not just an African-American perspective. You know it's told through these writers but it's our perspective and that's why I think it's an American Musical. It's our story."
The 45 songs in Me and Mrs. Jones were arranged by Danny Kosarin, the show's music director and conductor. He says the project was one of the biggest challenges of his career, but also one of his favorites, because there was so much he could do with the music. "There's a song like the Love I Lost, which was a big disco hit that I made into a ballad," he says.
"The nice thing was I got to write these arrangements directly for these individual performers to use them to their best advantage. A lot of things you don't realize about the song until you go back and say, 'Hey, that's not there (in the original).'"
Me and Mrs. Jones has a happy ending, with all the couples re-uniting, energizing the audience with their love. Lou Rawls says that for him, seeing the audience's response has been one of the most rewarding experiences. "Before the show's over, they are standing in the aisles dancing and bopping and when they leave they're walking out feeling good," he says.
"I have people come up after the show and say that sure did take me back to some good times and that's what's it's all about. We need that. I remember what I was doing when that record was hot. I got my first date you know which are good memories that's we need, something to revive the good times."
Lou Rawls and Me and Mrs. Jones will be reviving the good times for the next few years, as the show takes its music and its message on a worldwide tour.