Dec 6, 1946: The Mavericks in Twilight Alley
Duke Ellington wrote for Broadway only once, for Beggar’s Holiday in 1946. It wasn’t called that during its three-week tryout at the Boston Opera House, though. That December, it was called Twilight Alley, a street described by Boston Post critic Elliot Norton as “a generally handsome thoroughfare.” But, he immediately added, “It leads nowhere, and it is uphill most of the way, in a dull neighborhood where the folks are rather tired and tiresome, and the jokes are dull.”
Ellington wrote the music, and John LaTouche wrote the book and lyrics to Twilight Alley, “a parallel in tempo to John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera,” a classic satire from the 18th century. Ellington sent Billy Strayhorn to Boston as arranger.
Twilight Alley boasted an impressive cast and crew. Director John Houseman was a leading light on stage, screen, and radio. Playgoers knew leading man Alfred Drake as Curly from the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! Libby Holman, the bane of social conservatives, was then touring with bluesman Josh White. Zero Mostel played the thoroughly corrupt Peachum, and fellow actor Thomas Gomez would be the first Hispanic nominated for an Oscar, in 1947. It was dancer Valerie Bettis’s first production as choreographer, and music director Max Meth would win Tony awards as best musical director in 1949 and 1952. Dancer and singer Avon Long, a Boston Conservatory graduate, had become synonymous with the Gershwin character Sportin’ Life, and dancer and singer Marie Bryant, who did both in the short film Jammin’ the Blues, had worked with Ellington on Jump for Joy.
They weren’t enough. Columnist George Clarke wrote that Twilight Alley “came in for a pretty general shellacking,” and one of the critics was Ellington himself. The Duke was in Boston on December 1 to play a concert at Symphony Hall with Django Reinhart. He remained in Boston, and wrote in Music Is My Mistress that he attended a matinee, and afterwards told the crew the show was too long, the orchestra too loud, and some elements in the staging wouldn’t even be found in a high-school play!
The producers altered the show. It was shortened, songs were changed, and director Houseman was replaced by Nicholas Ray, in what was his only stage production. Playwright and director George Abbott was called in as a script doctor, and he promptly fired Libby Holman and replaced her with Bernice Parks. And between Boston and New York, the name was changed to Beggar’s Holiday.
Little of Ellington-LaTouche music is known today. Duke recorded “Brown Penny” and “Maybe I Should Change My Ways.” Lena Horne had success with “Tomorrow Mountain,” and various singers have recorded “Take Love Easy.” But “The Scrimmage of Life”? “Ore from a Gold Mine”? “Quarrel for Three”? I’ve never heard them.
The Post’s Norton went to the theater expecting an updated version of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with all its political satire intact. He didn’t get it. He wondered, “Is this burlesque instead of mere satire?” Norton wanted a label for Twilight Alley, and while he struggled with categories, he missed the bigger point.
Ellington, writing in Music Is My Mistress, put it like this: “It was a long time before its time so far as social significance was concerned. Again it was a matter of saying things without saying them. If you had white and black people on the stage together at that time, one of them was supposed to call the other a bastard, or something. There was none of that in this show. People were cast according to their ability. Alfred Drake played the part of Macheath the mobster, and the chief of police and his daughter were both black. Mack and the colored girl fell in love. Now that’s a silly show in 1947! There were no such things then.”
Twilight Alley challenged that status quo, using black actors in leading parts and white actors in comical supporting roles. The show was trouble-free in Boston, but in New York it was picketed: people objected to the interracial couple at the center of the story. When Drake, a white man, kissed Mildred Smith, a black woman, on stage, people in the New York audience walked out.
Beggar’s Holiday ran for 111 performances on Broadway. “The public,” Duke wrote, “was not really ready for it.”
Here are two of Ellington’s tunes from Beggar’s Holiday. First is his own orchestra’s recording of “Maybe I Should Change My Ways,” from 1947, and apparently used recently in the soundtrack of a video game. Then it’s Ella and Joe Pass with “Take Love Easy.”