In the 1990s, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” an anthology of more than three dozen musical numbers by the legendary Los Angeles-based songwriting team of lyricist Jerry Leiber and pianist Mike Stoller, ran for five years on Broadway. The show incorporated hits such as “Stand by Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9” and “Hound Dog,” first recorded by Big Mama Thornton then subsequently covered by Elvis Presley, for whom Lieber and Stoller also wrote “Jailhouse Rock.”
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” also had a memorable 2001-02 production at Hey City Theater, which is now the Brave New Workshop, in downtown Minneapolis.
Last year, director Josh Bergasse, the Emmy-winning choreographer of NBC’s “Smash,” revived the show in New York.
“Even though we were going with the original sounds of the songs, the one thing I didn’t want people to feel [was] like they were in the ’60s,” said Bergasse, who teamed with music director Sonny Paladino for the revival and who described the Twin Cities cast, including Ben Bakken, China Brickey and Dwight Leslie, as “spectacular.” “It’s not a period piece. Our concept is make it feel like a reunion, so everything is today but we’re remembering that time.”
The men are tweaking the show again, also with input from Stoller, 86. The composer, who has been keeping up with the Twin Cities production but has not been actively involved, spoke with the Star Tribune by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
Q: This revival is coming at a time when the musical revue is not as popular as it used to be.
A: I don’t think a lot has changed in terms of what “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is. It was always a musical revue, but a different type, and it went through stages in the beginning. The original was based on the idea that a show could be made of songs by my late partner, Jerry Lieber, and me. It began in a small theater in Seattle.
A: Jerry and I were involved with another production at that time — a ballet musical. And I spoke to a producer who was a friend, Jack Viertel, and said, “You know what, I don’t really like this show, and I think some of the choices they made are not great, but there’s something happening in the theater with these songs.” Jack and his brother, Tom Viertel, then flew out, this was probably in ’93, to see it. It had a book and had characters [based on the songs]. It was similar to a show that had been done in London where, for example, Big Mama was married to D.W. Washburn and had a son named Charlie Brown. It just didn’t make any sense. So I said to them, “How about doing it without a book; just the songs?” They said great.
Q: Why did you say no to a book?
A: Each of these songs is a kind of short story in and of itself. The only thing these songs have in common is that they were written by Jerry and me.
Q: In the ’90s, that was all you needed.
A: Absolutely. The music seemed to be enough for the audience on Broadway. The characters at that time were named for the performers who were doing the show. For a while after, people who did the show kept those original names.
Q: Do you think that’s enough today?
Q: Tell me about the updates to the show.
A: I suggested changes to Sonny Paladino and Josh … and they incorporated them. I didn’t write them out. And some of the changes were suggested by Josh and Sonny. There are certain elements that are more contemporary in terms of pop music and R&B. And the performers are younger now, which means that what they’re bringing to it is more contemporary.
Q: I understand that the approach is different now in a show with 39 or 40 songs. You looked back to go forward with these updates?
A: On “Love Potion Number 9,” the song was originally recorded by a group called the Clovers. Then, we did a later version with the Coasters, incorporating some Latin motifs.
Q: Which explains the Latin percussion on it now.
Q: In going back to the roots of these songs, was the goal to make the music more funky?
A: The people, and the recording artists that Jerry and I most admired, were African-American. They were blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, Big Mama Thornton. We wrote songs that we hoped would sound authentic — original but authentic. They called it race music, or blues and rhythm was the heading in Cash Box magazine. [Record executive] Jerry Wexler changed it to rhythm and blues. Eventually, they used the term rock ’n’ roll, which, by the way, was an old blues term for sex.
Q: You talk a lot about Leiber. What’s your fondest memory of your journey together?
A: When Jerry and I first started writing in 1951, it was like spontaneous combustion. I would jam at the piano. He would walk around the room smoking, because we smoked back then, and he would just shout out a word or phrase or a line, and it if was good, we’d write something. That’s how we came up with “Yakety Yak,” which has a funny semi-country, semi-R&B rhythm pattern on piano. I was working at Jerry’s apartment in New York and started playing, and Jerry yelled out: “Take out the papers and the trash,” and I yelled back, “or you don’t get no spending cash.” Jerry had a fertile imagination and was a great lyric writer.
Q: Looking back at your partnership with Jerry and your achievements, what would you say to your 17-year-old self?
A: “Thank you.” Those teenagers have taken very good care of two older gentlemen. Jerry said, way back in those teenage years, that we’re gonna become rich and famous. And I said, “Oh, come on, Jerry.”
Smokey Joe’s Cafe: By: Based on the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Directed by Josh Bergasse. When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Ends Sept. 22. Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St Paul. Tickets: $48-$122. 651-224-4222, ordway.org.