On the one hand, there already is a play about the female vocalists who helped propel Duke Ellington’s band to legendary status.
On the other hand, it isn’t good enough.
At least not for local playwright Cathy Rawlings, whose play “The Duke, The Music, The Women” opens this weekend at Woodford Theatre. The musical tribute follows the trajectory of Ellington’s band from the 1920s through the 1970s, with an emphasis on the women in Ellington’s band, many of whom went on to become major stars in their own right.
Several years ago, Rawlings had been encouraged by a theater friend to produce Donald McKayle’s Tony Award-winning 1981 Broadway musical review, “Sophisticated Ladies.” Rawlings, a huge fan of Ellington saw a recording of the show and was disappointed.
“I was like, ‘Oh.’” Rawlings says. “The singing and the dancing were fabulous. However, I was left feeling empty because I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t know before.”
Rawlings didn’t want to be involved in a production of “Sophisticated Ladies,” but the show did inspire her to research Ellington’s life and, especially, the lives of the women surrounding him.
“The more I dug, the more I found out why and how things happened, and that’s where it started,” Rawlings says of the play’s inception.
For Woodford Theatre’s 2016-2017 season, artistic director Trish Clark had scheduled “Sophisticated Ladies” as the season closer, and she had Rawlings in mind to direct. When she pitched the idea to Rawlings, she was surprised to learn that Rawlings had written her own Ellington inspired play.
“She had a script she had written about Duke’s lead female singers, which is the premise of ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’” Clark says. “Of course, if a local playwright had such a script, I thought we should investigate. Cathy has a real passion and drive to tell historical events about her cultural heritage with as much accuracy as she can. Thus, we had a script that did just that.”
The show features about 30 song-and-dance numbers with pauses for historical tidbits of information — the kind Rawlings had wished she had experienced when watching “Sophisticated Ladies.”
While writing the play, Rawlings got to meet Mercedes Ellington, Duke’s granddaughter, who worked on the original production in 1981.
“I told her the concept of the play and she said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s what ‘Sophisticated Ladies’ was supposed to be,’” Rawlings said. Broadway producers had cut the historical meat of the show to streamline it into a more pure musical review format, she says.
“She shared with me that she would do anything she could to help get this off the ground and how appreciative she was that someone was keeping her granddad’s music alive,” says Rawlings, who directed Woodford Theatre’s 2015 musical hit “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Rawlings says she hopes the show shines a light on the trials and triumphs of each woman’s experience.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like in that time?” Rawlings says. “Just with what was happening in the world. We’re talking about two world wars, the depression, and being black in America.
“Imagine having to have to perform in places where black people were not even allowed to go. I just wanted to pay homage to those before us.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
‘The Duke, The Music, The Women (A Tribute to Duke Ellington)’
What: The Woodford Theatre’s production of Cathy Rawlings’show, with music by Duke Ellington.
When: 8 p.m. May 19, 20, 26, 27, June 2, 3. 2 p.m. May 21, 28 and June 4.
Where: Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles
Tickets: $20 adults, $13 students and children