Arts & Culture » Theater

Always Misbehavin'

Former St. Louisan Ken Page knows Ain't Misbehavin' inside and out.


You can't swing a cat these days without hitting Ken Page. Have you seen Dreamgirls? The former St. Louisan has a featured role in that flashy new film. Last week's umpteenth return of Cats to the Fox served as yet another reminder that Page was Broadway's original Old Deuteronomy. And he was so ingrained in Ain't Misbehavin', which is currently being staged by the Black Rep, that one of its five characters is named Ken.

There's a reason for that. "Ain't Misbehavin' is a very specific, particular creation," Page explains. "I can't think of another revue where the actual show was based on the actors who were cast. Normally you put a lot of Stephen Sondheim songs together and then you cast the show. But Ain't Misbehavin' was built on, around and with us."

For Page, the revue arrived at exactly the right time. Soon after he arrived in New York and made a great splash as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in an all-black revival of Guys and Dolls, word went out that the creators of a new show about Thomas "Fats" Waller, the celebrated jazz pianist who died in 1943 at age 39, were looking for someone "like the guy in Guys and Dolls." Page recalls with a laugh the day his agent phoned and said, "They're looking for you!" Page sang one song for director Richard Maltby Jr., music supervisor Luther Henderson and one of Waller's sons. That's all it took to land the role that "more or less" personified the composer of such standards as "Honeysuckle Rose" and "The Joint Is Jumpin'."

"We did that show for God and grace and glory," Page says. "There was no money attached, no guarantee that it was going anywhere beyond a 60-seat cabaret room at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Did we start with the idea that we hope this revue gets to Broadway? Not at all. It was simply a celebration of Fats Waller's life and music."

After the cast was assembled — including Nell Carter, Andre DeShields, Armelia McQueen and Charlaine Woodard — Page says, "We would go to [associate director] Murray Horwitz's apartment down in the Village and sit on the floor. It was very rudimentary. All we had was photocopies of songs they'd been able to cull from publishing houses. Someone would play the songs on the piano. If there were existing recordings, we would listen to them. We went through the process of saying, 'I don't know so much about that one.' Or if we really liked one, they'd set it aside. Eventually we started narrowing the songs down. Putting that show together was completely organic."

That collaborative approach continued through rehearsals. Consider the evolution of the show-stopping "Your Feet's Too Big," which Page delivered with delicious brio: "Murray brought it out of the pack and said, 'This is a great song, but I don't know what we should do with it.' Then someone said, 'Perhaps you could sing it sitting at a table.' I said, 'OK, I'm sitting at a table. What am I doing at the table? I've got to be doing something. Give me a drink. Give me a glass.' So we started rehearsing, and I said, 'Can I sing it to someone?' The girls all said, 'No! We are not gonna sit there and let you talk about our big feet.' So I said, 'Give me an empty chair. I'll create a woman out of my reaction to her.' And that's how the staging became what it is in the show. People later told me that by the end of that song they could see the woman."

One of the number's many fans was President Jimmy Carter, who attended the production and told Page that he loved to sing "Your Feet's Too Big" as a boy growing up in Georgia.

But the revue isn't all smiles. Act Two builds to the mournful dirge "Black and Blue," which was plucked from Waller's 1929 musical Hot Chocolates. "That's a part of Fats' legacy that still hasn't registered with people," Page says, "but he wrote three Broadway revues. We used 'Black and Blue' to represent all the heartache Fats endured. Life wasn't just fun and games for him. He was subjected to a lot of prejudice. So we sang the song in five-part harmony. At no time in the arrangement did we ever sing in unison. It was very hard to learn. Armelia used to sit with her ear literally on the piano so she could hear the notes in her part played in the accompaniment. Extremely difficult and challenging. But what came out of it was this beautifully simple and sobering moment."

After the show opened off Broadway "and the celebrities started coming," it was clear that Ain't Misbehavin' was a hit. It transferred to Broadway almost immediately, where it played for nearly four years. Page stayed for eighteen months, then did it for nine months in California. The staging was so high-energy that by the time he got to the West Coast he'd begun to lose weight: "I remember at one point wearing a pillow, just so I could be a little bigger. Richard Maltby's stepmother — no one asked for her opinion, but she felt free to give it — came by and said, 'You're losing weight, honey. You're going to find yourself out of a job.' And I thought, if my size is the only reason I'm here, then I probably will be out of a job."

Not to worry. Page next took Ain't Misbehavin' to Paris for nine months. "Glorious," he says of the experience. "The show was as big a hit there as it had been in America. This was 1980, and Paris was still in love with the Jazz Age of Harlem. At that point most of Waller's RCA Victor recordings were still being issued from RCA Paris. Those nine months were the best time of my life. We were the talk of the town, and that made a lot of doors open. So I saw Paris from a very privileged place."

The mega-hit Cats, Page's next Broadway show, was the polar extreme of Ain't Misbehavin'. No actors' names are ever mentioned in Cats advertising; the production is the star. "Cats had already been a big hit in London," Page says. "Our task was to re-create the musical in its fullest form. Yes, it was to the producers' benefit to keep everyone as anonymous as possible, but during that period I also did my cabaret act so I could maintain a profile of myself as an actor and not get lost in the shuffle of fur. But how can you complain about being a part of something as huge as Cats was? You're just lucky to be in it."

Page has re-created his Cats and Ain't Misbehavin' roles at the Muny, where for the past thirteen summers he has been a mainstay. Last March he received one of the first Kevin Kline Awards for his showy Muny turn as Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. In March he'll return to St. Louis to host the second annual Kevins at the Roberts Orpheum Theater — and he hopes to be invited back to Forest Park this summer.

Meanwhile he's waxing enthusiastic about Dreamgirls. "It's a gorgeous film, absolutely thrilling," he enthuses. "There are moments in it that give you goosebumps. And I'm not just saying that because I'm in it. When I talk about Dreamgirls, I'm like a fan. This is a unique piece of material. Narrow it down. How many musicals do they film today? Of those, how many have an African-American cast and story? You can count on one hand the films in that genre. Stormy Weather, Porgy and Bess, The Wiz, although it was terrible. The last time we had anything approaching this quality was Carmen Jones in 1954. In that one film you see Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge — and you realize these were the top performing people of that era. The same is true here. So Dreamgirls is like a time capsule. To have been chosen to be part of something that I know will stand in history for my own people is a really wonderful thing."

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