While I wasn’t there is person, “Un-Block The Music” was at 54 Below in spirit last night when the doors to the famed New York City club opened for the first time since pandemic shutdown in March 2020. Although theaters and live performance openings have been announced in the last month, New York reached a 70 percent vaccination rate earlier this week, so this show opening is even more of a celebration! “Un-Block the Music” spoke to 54’s creative program leader Jennifer Ashley Tepper about the club as well as about Volume 4 of her book series “The Untold Stories of Broadway.”
As always, the conversation with Jennifer was upbeat and fun. “Quarantine’s silver lining was that I had the time to write Volume 4. It was especially meaningful to write it over the course of this time. I did a few more interviews although most were already done, and I was able to write!”
Volume 4’s theater history features the Fallen 5. If you don’t know about the Fallen 5, they were the five Broadway theaters demolished in 1982 to make room for the Marriot Marquis in Times Square. The theaters included: the Morosco, Helen Hayes, Bijou, Victoria, and Astor. What’s interesting for “Un-Block The Music” is how this “not so nice” event in theater history reinforces what I have been saying for the last year about live theater post CO-VID. Theater survives it all and only, in my opinion, gets stronger!
Also, witness… The Federal Theater Project which is described in the book. “Un-Block The Music” never heard of this before. It was a relief measure created during the Great Depression to employ artists, writers, directors and theater workers. The project became a source of heated political contention. Congress responded to accusations of racial integration and Communism infiltration and cancelled its funding as of June 30, 1939. My first thought when reading that is Wow…the more things change…the more they stay the same. However, have to believe this pandemic and calls for Social Justice will change things for good this time. The 54 Below space was part of that project. Of course, it is close to Jennifer’s heart. She says there is so much history in this space. You may remember Studio 54 and the days of Andy Warhol???
Then, there is the Jacobs Theatre (formerly The Royale) on 45th St. in the heart of it all. “It shares a stage door with two other Broadway theaters. It was home to the longest running poker game in Broadway history! During the original run of Grease in the early 1970s, tons of actors, stagehands and other theater workers would run to the basement to play. That lasted more than a decade,” Jennifer explained.
The Imperial Theatre is also part of the book. “The Imperial is the hit house,” she said; home to Pippin, Fiddler on The Roof, and Dreamgirls. It was exciting to talk about landmark musicals and to talk to those that were there at the time.” (One of “Un-Block The Music’s favorite shows premiered there too…They’re Playing Our Song, starring Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, music created by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager).
Jennifer said in addition to historical facts, she wants to share the community and comraderies that goes on behind the scenes; something sorely missed in the last year and a half.
How did all these facts come to light anyway? There isn’t one place to go for info. Many of the people originally involved in the history are gone. “I grew up obsessed with theater. I studied cast recordings. Living in New York has been the greatest education as well. I have done over there 300 interviews since 2013 too. People would say something interesting to me and that would send me down a rabbit hole and into the theaters. There is just so much theater history that people don’t know about.”
“Un-Block The Music” loves these books. I often think Broadway is the best kept secret; not a lot of common knowledge. Jennifer said, “Theater by definition is for a limited number of people.” With all of the streaming in the last year and a half, and with theater joining the digital sphere, perhaps that has begun to change.
Just in case you haven’t been reading this blog from the beginning (heaven forbid…LOL), Jennifer was part of the producing team for Be More Chill, a show aimed at the younger generation that reached a fever pitch of fame on the internet before moving to a Broadway theater. In my humble opinion, that show was not given a fair shot on Broadway. I sat among theater critics that just didn’t get it. Jennifer takes it in stride. “Only one in five Broadway shows makes money. Shows throughout history that are perceived as youth culture get a backlash. I was recently doing some research on Once Upon a Mattress. (It was a 1959 musical based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Princess and the Pea with music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Marshall Barer.) It was scrappy; writers young. They kept getting kicked out and moving to different theaters. A Broadway show being aimed at young people has a sort of stigma.” If you haven’t heard the soundtrack to Be More Chill, “Un-Block The Music” highly recommends it. Not often do you hear something “brand new.” https://www.amazon.com/More-Chill-Original-Cast-Recording/dp/B0178EA80C) George Salazar’s rendition of “Michael In The Bathroom” is just wonderful. (BTW…George and Be More Chill’s Music creator Joe Iconis played the first post-pandemic performance at 54 Below last night.)
Jennifer is also involved in getting Joe’s next show to the stage. Love In Hate Nation already played New Jersey’s Two River Theater. So, keep watch on that. AND she is also the historian behind Lin Manuel Miranda’s upcoming Tick Tick Boom movie, the autobiographical story of Rent’s writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Larson. Whew! This “Woman Wonder” has never ending energy!
Check out this previous story about Jennifer: https://unblockthemusic.blog/2018/05/03/jennifer-ashley-tepper-do-what-you-love-and-do-it-very-loudly/
To order “The Untold Stories of Broadway” Volumes 1-4 books, go to:
Stayed tuned for Volumes 5 & 6