This weekend, a pair of American Idol competitors honor an American legend at Lexington Opera House. The production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, presented as part of the Broadway Live series, features American Idol season two winner Ruben Studdard and finalists Frenchie Davis and Trenyce.
Like many audiences that see Ain’t Misbehavin’, Studdard and Davis say the musical revue of Fats Waller’s work has opened them up to even more songs by the jazz pioneer.
Studdard knew that Waller wrote Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, but, until he signed on for the show, Studdard didn’t know that Waller also penned I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.
“I was a really big fan of jazz in middle school and high school,” Studdard said in a phone interview. “My band teacher introduced me to his music, and I loved it, but I never dreamed in a million years I’d be in a play doing his music, but here I am.”
Davis, in an interview from the show’s tour bus, said, “I always believed that he was a genius. The real cool thing about this show is, people who had not been convinced see how much of his piano-playing style is borrowed by artists today. People who have missed that point don’t miss it because of this show.”
Waller was a pioneer of stride piano, a style that had the player pounding out complex rhythms with the left hand while holding down a melody in the right. He also was a comedic entertainer and prolific songwriter.
The most poignant song to both of the singers is Black and Blue, which addresses the effect that racism had on blacks in the early part of the 20th century.
“Fats Waller was known for being this fun, sort of jovial kind of guy, but there was a lot of pain there and demons with which he had to deal,” Davis says. “Those things sort of sneak out in some of the lyrics.
“A lot of times, people figure that the funny guy or the class clown isn’t aware of what is going on around him either socially or politically. If you listen to the lyrics of Fats’ music, you find he was very aware.”
That’s in part because what was going on was having a direct effect on him.
“People couldn’t even walk in the front door of places where they were headlining,” Davis says, referring to black performers. “That’s insane. You’re the top-billed act, but you can’t even walk in the front door.”
Says Studdard: “For a man to be as talented as he is and only made $80 a song for all those hits he wrote is just crazy.”
For Davis, the show means walking in the footsteps of not only Waller but of Nell Carter, who starred in the original Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and won a Tony Award for her performance.
“There’s only going to be one Nell Carter,” Davis says. “So all I can do is honor her memory and channel my love for her and my love for the show into my performance.” Davis is a musical-theater veteran, having performed in the Broadway production of Rent.
Studdard, on the other hand, is taking his first shot at the stage. But it might not be his last.
“Doing eight shows a week is something I’ve never done before,” Studdard says. “But it’s music I love singing, and that’s what makes it fun for me. It makes it interesting every night because the music is so good.
Any future stage endeavors? “We’ll see,” he says. “If any opportunities come from this, I won’t dismiss them.”
The highlight of each night for him is Honeysuckle Rose, and that takes him back to his own Idol roots.
“It’s the only song I sing with Frenchie Davis,” he says, “so I love that every night.”