Joe Brancato was skeptical when his friend Miche Braden suggested the Penguin Rep Theatre he founded in New York do a production based on the life of blues icon Bessie Smith. That was until he heard Braden's arrangements of a few of Smith's songs. "I was totally blown away," he recalls. "I said, 'We have to make this happen.' " He hired playwright Angelo Parra to write The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, a musical that tells how a hard-drinking, fast-living preacher's daughter became one of the most successful female blues singers of the '20s and '30s. Brancato and Braden, the show's star and musical director, have altered the song list over time, but you'll hear these hits during the Cleveland Play House's production Feb. 15-March 10.
"Down-Hearted Blues" // Brancato says Smith's first single encapsulates her as an artist and allows the audience "to enjoy a great talent that you could believe is on a dangerous course toward self-destruction."
"St. Louis Blues" // This 1925 W.C. Handy song inspired a film starring Smith. "We create that passion with all the sex and great humor that the song permits," Brancato says.
"I Ain't Got Nobody" // "One would totally think that this song had been written for this play because it entwines so well with the script and moves it forward," Brancato says.