Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
Originally Written for: The San Diego Jewish Journal
Posted on sdnn.com 9/11/09
He may have been the first American Idol. One of the greatest entertainers of all time — a mega-talented singer, dancer, actor, comedian, impressionist and multi-instrument musician. He was also a master chef, a skilled photographer and a fast-draw shooting competitor. He broke down racial barriers. And he was the highest-profile African American Jew in the U.S.
Sammy Davis, Jr. died at 64 in 1990, but his legend lives on. Just this past June, a menorah of his went up for auction. And this month, a world premiere musical about him opens at the Old Globe.
“He was larger than life,” says Old Globe executive producer Lou Spisto. “Whatever he did, he did it to excess. He had to have the biggest, the most, be the best. There’s a song in the show called ‘ Livin ’ Large.’ He was only 5’2”, but he was a powerhouse. And he had a powerful effect on the ladies.”
The new show, “Sammy,” which features a cast of 17, is a collaboration by folks who really knew their subject.
The composer/lyricist is Leslie Bricusse , a Cambridge graduate and two-time Oscar and Grammy winner who was Sammy’s close personal friend. Bricusse , who’s written more than forty musicals and film scores, created some of Sammy’s most memorable songs, including “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “The Candy Man.”
The director, Pulitzer-nominated Keith Glover, who wrote and directed the mythical, blues musical, “Thunder Knockin ’ at the Door” (produced at the Globe in 1999), has a strong understanding for the iconic performer. And Obba Babatundé , the veteran stage/screen actor who plays the title role, was Sammy’s protégé.
“If there’s a perfect team for the project,” says Spisto, “this is it. These guys really understand the man and his work.”
“’Sammy’ is not a commercial production like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” or “The First Wives Club,” Spisto explains. Those projects were brought to the Globe with a creative lineup intact.
“We put this team in place,” says Spisto. “I don’t know if it’s Broadway-bound. We’ll see how it’s received. It certainly has the potential. But the arrangement is different this time. Leslie Bricusse is the Globe’s partner. And we couldn’t be happier.”
Bricusse , who lives half the year in Beverly Hills and splits the other half between London and Nice , France , seems pretty happy, too. This project has been a long time coming.
It all started fifteen years ago.
“After we lost Sammy, I put together a fairly lavish songbook,” Bricusse reports, in his affable manner and impeccable English accent. “Over the year’s he’d recorded more than 60 of my songs.
“I had had talks with [conductor/producer/arranger/composer] Quincy Jones about putting together a show, using a few existing songs, and telling the story of Sammy’s extraordinarily complex life. But as it turned out, I wound up creating the show on my own.”
The four-time Tony Award nominee, who created musicals such as “”Jekyll and Hyde,” “Victor/Victoria,” has written the book and lyrics, and composed the score for the new production.
The Composer and the Entertainer
Bricusse clearly remembers the first time he heard Sammy Davis Jr. on the radio.
“It was the mid 50s,” he recalls. “I loved that voice. About five years later, Edie [ Bricusse’s wife of 50 years] and I went to see him perform. Tony [ Newley ] and I had opened ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off’ about a year earlier, and Sammy was playing down the street in the West End [ London ]. He fell in love with the show, and was the first to record songs from it.”
Those songs, including “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Who Can I Turn To ?, ” co-written with the late, great actor/singer/composer Anthony Newley , became Sammy’s trademark numbers, and they appear in the new musical. In 1978m Sammy starred in the Bricusse-Newley show, right here in San Diego , at what was then the Fox Theatre, now Copley Symphony Hall.
“We became instant pals,” says Bricusse . “We spent a lot of time together. Even lived next door to each other for quite awhile. Everything I wrote, he wanted to hear. He made the best album of ‘Dr. Dolittle ’ that exists.”
When Bricusse met Sammy, the entertainer had just shocked the world by marrying the Swedish-born actress May Britt. This was his second wife ( Loray White was his first) and his second dalliance with a white woman. In the mid-50s, he’d been involved with actress Kim Novak, but Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios, where Novak was under contract, was hellbent on ending that liaison. He called in the mob and threatened Sammy.
“How would you like to lose the other eye ?, ” Cohn said to Sammy, according to Bricusse . “He was a monster,” he says of Cohn.
There was a strong prevailing taboo against interracial marriage, which was illegal in 31 states at the time (those laws weren’t rescinded until 1967). Sammy still received hate mail while he was starring in the Broadway musical, “Golden Boy” (1964-1966), for which he received a Best Actor Tony Award nomination.
These experiences deeply affected him, and he went on to have a profound influence on the racial biases in the entertainment capitals of America .
For many years, Sammy was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas , but he wasn’t permitted to stay at the hotel or gamble in the casino with his Rat Pack buddies: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford . No stage dressing rooms were provided for black performers during the 1950s; between acts, they were forced to wait outside near the pool. After he achieved superstar success, Sammy refused to work at segregated venues. His demands eventually led to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos.
The Accident … and the Jewish Connection
Sammy had one of his life-changing experiences in the mid-50s, when he was nearly killed in a car accident in San Bernardino , on a late-night trip from Vegas to L.A. Stretched out in the back seat when the serious collision occurred, Sammy lost his left eye and suffered a broken jaw and other facial injuries.
While he was in the hospital, he was visited by his friend Eddie Cantor, who talked extensively about Judaism. Inspired by this conversation, Sammy, who was born to a Catholic mother and Baptist father, began studying Jewish history. He converted to Reform Judaism several years later.
“Judaism meant a great deal to him,” Bricusse reports. “Eddie Cantor gave Sammy his first mezuzah, taking it off his own neck. He told him it was a charm for good luck, health and happiness. Sammy fell in love with what it – and the religion — represented.”
Sammy began studying Judaism in earnest, encouraged and mentored by Rabbi Max Nussbaum of the star-studded Temple Israel of Hollywood . (Nussbaum later officiated over the conversion of Sammy’s wife, May Britt, and also Elizabeth Taylor).
One seminal moment came, ironically enough, on Christmas Day, 1954. Sammy had bought his mother a white Cadillac, but when he went outside to show her his gift, he found that someone had painted the garage door of his new Hollywood mansion with the message, “Merry Christmas, Nigger!”
Furious and heartbroken, he reached for a book as a distraction. That book was “A History of the Jews.” According to his autobiography, he was struck by “the affinity between the Jew and the Negro.”
He wrote that, “for thousands of years they hung onto their beliefs, enduring the scorn, the intolerance, the abuses against them because they were ‘different,’ time and time again, losing everything, but never their belief in themselves and in their right to have rights, asking nothing but for people to leave them alone, to get off their backs. I looked at the name of the man who had written the book. Abram Leon Sachar . I felt like sending him a note: ‘Abe, I know how you feel.’”
Burt Boyar, a friend and co-writer of Sammy’s autobiography, which was called, coincidentally, “Yes I Can ” ( Sammy’s motto), asserted that Sammy took his Judaism seriously. He regularly lit Chanukah candles, he wouldn’t take phonecalls or do business on Yom Kippur. Reportedly, his only regret was that he couldn’t go to Temple more often, because the star created such a stir – even in Hollywood — that it disrupted the services.
The Not-so Good Times
“Sammy had a lot of bad times,” Bricusse notes, “some of them self-induced. He didn’t really have a mother. Both his parents were vaudeville dancers, but his mother went off when he was 4. When I met Elvera years later, I never felt a powerful mother-son connection. The great, influential woman in his life was his grandmother, Rosa, his tower of strength.”
Sammy’s father, not wanting to lose custody, took his son on the road. As a very young child, Sammy learned to dance with his father and his ‘uncle’ Will, and they became the Will Mastin Trio. For years, the two adults shielded Sammy from racism. But when he went into the Army during WWII, he was confronted by strong racial prejudice. He was beaten up repeatedly, and had his nose broken twice. Then he joined an integrated entertainment Special Services unit, and found that the spotlight removed some of the prejudice. “My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight,” he once said. “It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.”
All these dramatic parts of his life — as well as his extravagant lifestyle, always paid for on credit (he was $5 million in debt when he died of throat cancer); his battles with alcohol, drugs and gambling; the Rat Pack; receiving the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 – find their way into the new musical.
But the show didn’t take its final shape until Obba Babatundé came into the mix.
Oh, Boy, Obba !
“We had seen a lot of people,” Spisto says of the nationwide auditions. “With a show like “Sammy,” you either get the right man or you do not attempt it. We are incredibly fortunate to have found the perfect actor to play the role.”
“We had a reading in New York a few months ago,” says Bricusse , “and Obba came to meet us. And I remembered that Sammy had brought him to my house in Beverly Hills years ago, when Obba was young, maybe in his 20s. Sammy was his mentor. Up till that point, we weren’t sure what age Sammy should be in the show. When I saw Obba , I realized we should be doing it from the experienced Sammy’s retrospective point of view.
“I knew it would be right to have an older Sammy looking back, being his own narrator at the beginning; then the scenes themselves become the narration. The show is 70% music, so the songs, as they should, tell the story. The songs reflect how he’s feeling. I knew Sammy so well, I found the dramatic moments, using a known song in a completely different context from which it was written. For instance, when Sammy loses his eye, he thinks he’ll never dance again, and he sings ‘Who Can I Turn To?’
“ Obba had a natural affinity for the role,” Bricusse continues, “an uncanny take on Sammy. He captures his essence more than anyone I’ve ever known. And Obba knows that this is his ‘Once in a Lifetime’ moment, which just happens to be the song (from “Stop the World’), that opens the show.”
Like his mentor, Obba is a skilled actor, singer and dancer who’s been entertaining audiences since he was a child. Sammy once said of him: “I feel safe knowing that with cats like Obba , when I get out of this business, I am leaving it in good hands.”
“It may sound peculiar or cliché,” Babatundé says, “but this is a role I was born to play. As an African American child, Sammy Davis, Jr. was the image on TV I was able to identify with. He was an all-around entertainer, extremely proficient at everything he did, and one of the few African Americans who appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ‘The Cavalcade of Stars,’ ‘Laugh-In,’ in film, even his own TV show. There was no comparative, and that went into my psyche. Without a conscious thought, I made a decision that I would become that type of entertainer. I patterned myself after Sammy, and like him, I wanted to do it in every field: singing, dancing, comedy, straight drama. He was without peer for me.”
Babatundé went on to fulfill most of his dreams. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as C.C. White in the original Broadway cast of “ Dreamgirls .” He was the first Jelly Roll Morton in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and appeared in the Broadway revival of “ Chicago .” He even took on the lead character in the Broadway revival of “Golden Boy,” 20 years after Sammy originated the role. Babatunté was nominated for an Emmy for his TV performance in “Miss Evers’ Boys,” and has appeared in 60 made-for-television movies, as well as a number of feature films, such as “The Celestine Prophecy,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and the upcoming “If I Tell You, I Have to Kill You.”
But the moment that’s seared in his brain, was that night in 1978, when he was co-starring in a world tour with Liza Minnelli.
“We happened to be on the same circuit as Sammy,” says Babatundé . “It’s a moment I will never forget, as long as I have breath in my body. Sammy was opening at Harrah’s in Tahoe. It was our closing, and he was opening the next night. Liza was aware that I was a huge fan of his. He was almost like her godfather. That night, she came to me and said, ‘ Obba , Sammy’s in the dressing room. Would you like to meet him?’ I said I’d like him to see me after he sees my work. She said he wasn’t staying for the show; he was having trouble with his gums.
“I saw him and said, ‘How do you do, Mr. Davis?’ ‘Sam, Man,” he said. ‘Call me Sam.’ I couldn’t. He was iconic to me. I called him Mr. D – and that’s what I called him for the rest of my relationship with him. He said, ‘I’d love to see you… but my gums…’
“And then I found out that he had stayed. He heard me do my solo number, ‘Mr. Cellophane’ [from “ Chicago ”]. After the show, there was a knock on my door. ‘It’s Sam,’ he said. ‘You, my man, are a bitch on wheels.’ And he went on to say some wonderful, kind praises about my work. When he stopped, I said, ‘Thank you for coming in through the kitchen, so I could come in through the front door.’ His eyes welled up, and he said, ‘Thank you for that, Man.’
“From that point, we became very close. It was an amazing relationship. A real special relationship. He came to see ‘ Dreamgirls ’ on Broadway. He said he enjoyed the relationship we had, the way I presented myself, the sense of professionalism and my commitment to entertainment. I knew him to the end.
“He didn’t have much education, but he was brilliant and knowledgeable about everything. This came from his great desire – to a fault, almost – to have what everyone else had. He knew everything about Shakespeare. He still holds the record for the fastest quick-draw with a six-shooter. Whatever it was, he did it to the maximum. I also have a large thirst for knowledge. I studied sign language, for example, just because I love learning.
“When I become Sammy Davis, Jr. in this show, it’s almost like the spirit of Sammy inhabits me. I was lucky to get into the inside of who the man was. In his case, much of who the man was is in who the entertainer was. However your life is developed by your environment, his was show business.”
The musical begins in 1951, on Oscar night, when Sammy opened for Janis Paige at Ciro’s nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. His memories take him back to his beginnings in Harlem , to the vaudeville days, the Cotton Club. Then forward in time, through the roller-coaster ride of his life, told via 25 songs, about 16 of which are new. The penultimate number is “The Good Things in Life.” But the big finish is Sammy’s signature song, “ Bojangles .”
“It’s not an impersonation,” asserts Babatundé . “It’s what I would call a reincarnation, the essence of who he was. People have always compared me to Sammy. My voice sounds very close to his voice.
“ I think we have something very, very special here.”
[Sammy runs at the Old Globe Theatre from Sept. 19-November 8; 619-23-GLOBE (234-5623); www.theoldglobe.org
©2009 PAT LAUNER