July 18, 2014

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

I've loved Billie Holiday ("Lady Day") since I first heard her recordings decades ago. But my wife hated her singing. So I listened to my Lady Day albums after my wife went to bed.

Hearing Billie Holiday's music late at night -- while I was half drunk -- only enhanced my love affair with her.

Holiday's difficult career exacted a painful price. She is as well known now for the grim travails of her short life -- she died at the age of 44, her voice spent, her body destroyed by addiction to alcohol and heroin -- as she is revered for the legacy of recordings she left behind.

Now Lady Day is being resurrected nightly at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City by five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald. The show -- Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill -- is getting rave reviews.

Two of my DC friends took the train -- up and back in the same day -- just to see the show. I might do the same when I get back from the cruise if the show is still on. It was scheduled for a limited run.

Here's how the New York Times described the setting for the show:
The year is 1959, just months before Holiday died, and the show is set at the club of the title in Philadelphia, a city that, as Holiday notes, she had reason to loathe. It was the site of her trial and conviction for drug possession, which led to a stint in prison and the revoking of her New York cabaret card, limiting her opportunities to perform in the city during the latter years of her career. 
“I used to tell everybody: When I die, I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell,” Holiday says ruefully as the show opens, “long’s it ain’t in Philly.”
Billy Holiday and "Strange Fruit"
Holiday first performed the song at Café Society in Greenwich Villlage in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation, But she continued to perform the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances.

Because of the song's power, Café Society founder Barney Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if in prayer.

Lady Day McDonald
Here's Audra McDonald as Lady Day:

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