It's especially apt that St. Louis native Ken Page is one of the featured performers in next week's anniversary revue, 90 Years of Muny Magic. Ever since he first sat in the free seats at age twelve, the Muny has had an impact upon Page's life and career. Now he recounts that life story in anecdote and song in Page by Page, a musical memoir that fills two discs on a CD. Essentially this is Page's concert act, recorded live last year at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Southern California. The entire performance is entertaining, but the material about his early days in St. Louis is especially insightful.
Born at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1954, Page tells of growing up in a family that had migrated to St. Louis from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and traces his lineage back to a union between an African slave and a Cherokee woman. He evokes a lost world of vegetable wagons and hot tamale pushcarts. "We lived in what people outside called the ghetto," he narrates. "We didn't have much, but we had each other. And in between the hard times, we had a whole lotta fun."
Although Page recalls "happy memories covered with barbecue smoke," he also acknowledges the anguish of being an overweight black teenager, taunts of "Hey, Fatso, I'm gittin' you after school" and "I don't want to sit by you." He recalls the tumultuous Vietnam years, when "young men from my neighborhood were constantly being sent off and not coming home." He shares the unrelenting losses of "Martin, Malcolm, Medgar and both Kennedys." Music got him through: "I could always get lost in the music."
Page was raised in a home of eclectic tastes. Dave Brubeck, Harry Belafonte, Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, Odetta, Nina Simone, Jackie Wilson and June Christy all saw rotation on the hi-fi. Most comforting of all was the theater music, the novelty of being a black student playing Tevye in a Catholic high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. As Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! Page was part of the first interracial couple ever seen onstage at Bishop DuBourg. ("These were big steps" in the early '70s, he notes.)
But the Muny was the most lasting influence on his life. First, as a spectator in the free seats. Then, beginning in 1973, from the stage itself when he was accepted into the singing chorus. That was the summer Page first smoked marijuana. It also was the summer of Seesaw, a Broadway import that played Forest Park for a week. "I was mesmerized," Page says, "not only with the show but with the people in it. They were short, tall, Asian, black, white." This musical ode to Manhattan touched a nerve. He knew he had to move to New York City — and soon he did. Although the CD includes songs from Page's Broadway hits — Guys and Dolls, The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin' and Cats — the title song from Seesaw provides this act with its overture and is the most accurate one-word summary of Page's career.
But the CD's most poignant song is "Memory," from Cats. Page performs that standard, which has been sung to death over the past two decades, as an elegy. A hit standard becomes a dirge for the AIDS plague that claimed so many of Page's peers during his New York years. "I haven't looked at the world in the same way since," he says.
Chances are that you won't look at Page in the same way after hearing this lusty, life-affirming yet also haunting performance.