Jazz music “still lives, and people need to know that,” says Fantasia, referring to the new foot-stomping Broadway revue After Midnight, in which she costars alongside Dulé Hill (The West Wing). “I’m only 29 years old, but I’ve been through a lot. So when I [listen to] Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway, I always get a great feeling. Even when the songs are kind of sad, like “Stormy Weather,” it still makes you feel good,” says the American Idol winner, who brilliantly delivers the classic song, originated by Ethel Waters at the Cotton Club and made more famous by Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, in the new production.
“Langston had a way of tapping into the heartbeat and undercurrent of what was going on and gave voice to it.” -Dulé Hill
Midnight—coproduced by Scott Sanders (The Color Purple) and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle—evokes an era in Harlem when jazz was the music du jour and folks danced the night away at joints like Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. Transporting audiences to such a musically specific era required the skill and vision of a master: enter Wynton Marsalis. As the co-creator, he selected a 17-piece orchestra from the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, just as Duke Ellington would have cherry-picked his own ensemble. The All-Stars, like Fantasia and Hill, break the fourth wall (an imaginary barrier that keeps stage performers from acknowledging the audience), transforming the Brooks Atkinson Theatre into an actual nightclub where ad-libs not only work, but also give the show a natural dazzle.
Now a student of jazz (with an admitted new respect for the “blue notes,” those emotional keys which she says are the most difficult), Fantasia is careful to leave her own brand of performance for her own songs. “I can get up there and do some ‘Fantasia runs,’ but we wouldn’t be sticking to what [the original composers] did and how much they put into it,” she explains.
Hill, who starred in the hit Broadway play Stick Fly, directed by Kenny Leon and produced by Alicia Keys, in 2011, possesses a similar reverence for the preservation of jazz. At the age of 10, the New Jersey native toured with the musical The Tap Dance Kid with Harold Nicholas of the world-famous Nicholas Brothers. “We used to watch old clips of Harold’s and see him with Dorothy Dandridge and performing with Fred Astaire,” says Hill. The Psych star belts out a couple of tunes and flexes his tapping skills in Midnight, but he mainly serves as the show’s narrator through the voice of poet Langston Hughes. “Langston had a way of tapping into the heartbeat and undercurrent of what was going on and gave voice to it.”