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Jolson & Company

A Class Act ('68) comes to the New York stage.

September-October 2002

Their physical resemblance is striking. Yet deeper ties connect Al Jolson, the twentieth century's first superstar, and Stephen Mo Hanan '68. Both men are actors and singers; both are descendants of Orthodox Jews; Jolson's father and Hanan's grandfather were cantors—singers who lead the musical part of the service in synagogues. Both their families emigrated from Lithuania to the United States. But by the time Hanan's immigrant father reached America in 1921, Al Jolson (1886-1950) was the most famous stage performer in the land—no one but Chaplin could draw an audience like "Jolie."

Jolson was immensely powerful, famous, and rich, "a rock star before the advent of rock music," says Hanan, himself a child of the rock era. "He had the energy, the freedom, the intense sexuality—all the pelvic gyrations." This fall, Hanan will star in Jolson & Company, an off-Broadway musical based on Jolson's life. A fascinating sidelight is that the show's major financiers are Hanan's classmates. Crimson Productions, headed by the show's music director, Peter Larson '68, Ed Kovachy '68, a San Francisco psychiatrist, and Hanan, has raised more than $400,000 from 32 investors: 31 of them from Harvard and 27 from the class of 1968. With another $250,000 in funding from producer Ric Wanetik, Jolson & Company will open September 29 at Manhattan's Century Center for Performing Arts after a preview run beginning September 12. It may be the first time anywhere that a college class has united to put one of its members on a theater marquee.

Hanan, a veteran New York theater performer, relishes the chance to play Jolson, a larger-than-life character both onstage and off. "He was pure id," Hanan says. "He didn't censor himself—neither his joy nor his rage. With Jolson you can be completely over the top—you have to be. His personality demands that kind of size." Jolson's magnetism came from his emotive power, released with special force in blackface, which focused attention on the two most expressive facial features, the eyes and mouth. But Jolson's real magic entered through the ear. "His voice is thrilling," Hanan explains. "It has so much energy, so much vitality, even in an old recording. I bought some CDs to research the role. When he sang, I felt like the CD was going to jump off the platter. Later, I was startled to read a 1923 essay by Gilbert Seldes, who said he felt like a Jolson record was about to jump off the turntable."

In a far more modest era, Jolson got away with his gushy, sexualized performances because he was in blackface, pretending to be an African American. He had been a so-so vaudeville performer until he sang in blackface, which allowed him to express the vulnerability of a lost child. "It's an amazing mask, as I discovered myself when I put it on for the first time," says Hanan, who applies blackface toward the end of the first act of Jolson & Company. "Jolson created a strange biracial persona, something unique. Everyone knew that he was a white guy and a Jew. But he took on qualities of African Americans that no one else in blackface did. Other blackface performers of that era were embarrassing, crude, offensive. But Jolson understood something about the black soul, and instinctively connected his own experience as an outsider in America, coming from an oppressed people, with the African slave experience. He heard it in the music."

With songs like "Mammy," Jolson could also pour out his deep sadness at losing his mother at age 8. "He was always looking for someone to replace her," Hanan explains. "The only way he could get to those deep feelings of pain and loss was through singing these 'Mammy' songs behind a mask. Jolson was famous for reducing audiences to tears; his singing was highly impassioned, deeply felt, full of vulnerability. He represented a quality that has completely disappeared from popular music, and that is poignancy. Today he would seem corny. It's a vanished era of entertainment, when a whole audience would be weeping together."

Jolson & Company, which tells the singer's life in flashback episodes, doesn't avoid the pricklier aspects, like Jolson's rages and cruelty during his first three (of four) marriages, and his egomania. "With a lot of competition, he was considered the biggest megalomaniac in Hollywood," says Hanan. Jolson could brook no rivals; he once had a team of trained elephants fired because audiences enjoyed them too much. Onstage, if Jolson thought a dramatic sketch was running too long, he'd step out of character, summarize the remainder of the plot to the audience, then ask, "Do you want to see that crap, or do you want to hear Jolie sing?" Once, at a benefit to sell bonds during World War I, Enrico Caruso brought down the house with an operatic rendition of "Over There!" Jolson, the next scheduled act, stuck his head out through the curtains as the audience clapped, and yelled, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"—the signature line he later immortalized in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927).

Yet "Jolie" could also be very charming, and the play depicts his ready wit. In 1918 the Westchester Biltmore Country Club invited him to join as a founding member. The magnitude of Jolson's stardom exempted him from the normal rules, and it was only 10 years later, when he took a Jewish friend there to play golf, that Jolson learned of the club policy excluding Jews. Outraged (he later resigned his membership), Jolson recovered fast enough on the spot to enter a sardonic plea for his friend: "He's only half Jewish—can he play nine holes?"

 

The seeds of Jolson & Company were sown when director Jay Berkow was hired to stage a one-man Jolson show and cast Hanan as the star. That show ran in Palm Beach early in 1998. "The problem with the solo format is that Jolson had such a low level of self-awareness," Hanan says. "You are stuck—monotonously—with his point of view. To show his character you need other people onstage." So Hanan and Berkow wrote a new script in which an actor and an actress take multiple roles, joining Hanan in scenes dramatized from Jolson's life. "We take a guy who's a jerk and make him sympathetic," Hanan says. They asked Peter Larson to be their music director. A pianist and arranger who has accompanied Dionne Warwick on tour and wrote Brownstones, a 1987 off-Broadway show, Larson has known Hanan since they were involved in Hasty Pudding Theatricals. The show includes 14 songs from the 1920s and earlier, including "Swanee," "California, Here I Come," and "You Made Me Love You."

At each of its reunions since 1978, the class of '68 has produced cabaret-style revues, with Hanan as a consistently crowd-pleasing singer. At their thirtieth reunion in 1998, he put on a short Jolson performance, got a tumultuous response, and the grassroots movement to back his show began. In 1999 the musical, in its present format, had a successful six-week run off-Broadway at the nonprofit York Theatre and even drew a positive notice from the famously acerbic theater critic John Simon '46.

Classmates knew they were financing a professional. In college, Hanan—then Stephen Hanan Kaplan—was a fixture at the Loeb Drama Center when playwrights Timothy Mayer '66 and Thomas Babe '63 and actor-director John Lithgow '67 were among its leading lights. (The name Stephen Mo Hanan, which the actor uses both off- and onstage, incorporates his Hasty Pudding Theatricals nickname, "Mo." Jolson, too, changed his name, from Asa Yoelson.)

"The Loeb experience transformed me," Hanan says. "That Bohemian, cosmopolitan, political, artistic Harvard in the '60s was a world I liked, and I wanted to stay there." He became a full-fledged "tie-dyed in the wool" Haight-Ashbury hippie and street singer who, by 1978, had settled into the New York theatrical world. In the original production of Cats, Hanan created the role of Gus, the Theatre Cat, for which he received a 1983 Tony nomination. His 2001 book A Cat's Diary is based on his actor's journal from first rehearsal to opening night in 1982. By now, Hanan has seen nearly every aspect of theater, and for Jolson & Company, he wears multiple hats, not only as star and coauthor, but as a principal in Crimson Productions. "Of course, as co-producer," he says, "I have to make sure the star doesn't make too many exorbitant demands."