Billy Strayhorn’s Life and Music Come to the Stage in His Hometown
The world premiere of “Something to Live For” opens Sept. 19 at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Billy Strayhorn has a theater co-named for him in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s getting his own musical.
“Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” will receive its world premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater this month, running Sept. 19-Oct. 11. Written by Rob Zellers and Carnegie Mellon University alum Kent Gash and boasting an impressive cast and crew, the show will bring the legendary jazz musician’s story to life in his hometown.
“We know of Billy Strayhorn, but he should be synonymous with the jazz greats, and this story I think helps place him there,” says Public Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski.
In 2006, Zellers — co-author of “The Chief,” the one-man show about Art Rooney — was tasked with reviewing a Duke Ellington biography for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There was a large section devoted to Strayhorn, and Zellers started to imagine a play.
The musician was raised in Homewood, took odd jobs in order to buy himself a piano and composed some of his greatest songs before he was 19 years old. He then met Ellington and became the bandleader’s collaborator for more than 10 years, composing and recording some of the greatest songs in jazz history. Strayhorn, who died at 51 from esophageal cancer, was openly gay and heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
“I immediately thought, what a great one-man show,” Zellers says. A great idea, until, he says, he sat back for a moment and realized when you have Ellington, Lena Horne and Billie Holiday as major players in the person’s life, you don’t leave them out.
“You have all these amazing figures from the golden age of jazz,” Zellers says. “And so it became, obviously, a bigger play.”
“It all feels like it’s in service of the goal of unearthing this little-known story about this queer Black musician who literally changed … jazz music,” says Kaminski.
The show will feature a live jazz band playing Strayhorn’s songs as well as Ellington’s (another CMU connection — Ellington will be played by CMU alum and Broadway veteran J.D. Mollison). To bring the songs to life, the show’s lead producer and Pittsburgh native Steven Tabakin recommended blind, 22-year-old acclaimed jazz pianist Matthew Whitaker as the musical director; orchestrations will be by Tony Award-winner Bruce Coughlin.
Darius de Haas, a Broadway star and the voice of Shy Baldwin in the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” will take on the title role. The singer, who has recorded albums of Strayhorn’s songs and frequently performs his works in concert, says he’s overjoyed about the opportunity.
“I am … thrilled beyond belief to do this show and to celebrate the life of this man who I feel has still not gotten his due as one of the greatest writers in the American songbook canon,” de Haas says.
De Haas, who says he grew up listening to Strayhorn as the son of a jazz musician father and singer mother, notes it’s a fortunate/unfortunate time to stage the musical.
“A lot of us in the LGBTQ+ community are having to reclaim our voices here in this country where there is such a horrible backlash against what should just be our freedoms … and here you have Billy Strayhorn who was born in a time where people didn’t even want to talk about it.
“It shows Pittsburgh and hopefully the world we’ve always been here. We’ve always had these great leaders, and I will call Billy Strayhorn someone at the forefront and I will call him a very strong, very prolific leader in voices of someone of the LGBTQ community but also of the great American songbook community.”