“Avenue X” is a story of racial integration, told from the point of view of doo-wop music. Set in Brooklyn in 1963 and based on the historic clash between Italian-Americans and the black newcomers to the neighborhood, it distills the musical traditions of both sides of the street.
What happens when an Italian-American trio loses a singer and picks an African-American replacement so it can compete in a singing competition? Such an incident would mean nothing today, but back in the ’60s, it packed the potential for violence and bloodshed.
First produced off-Broadway in 1994 and arriving Wednesday at the Alliance Theatre in a newly tweaked version by composer Ray Leslee and playwright Jim Jiler, “Avenue X” predated the “American Idol” trend and the zany puppet musical “Avenue Q” by about a decade. Yet the eight-voice a cappella musical espouses some of the same ideas as these pop-culture touchstones: the youthful quest for dreams and success, the importance of multiculturalism and community-building.
“Here’s a music that’s all about harmony, and the issues are all about harmony or the search for harmony,” says composer Ray Leslee, who grew up on Brooklyn’s Avenue X and spent the early part of his career playing piano for doo-wop bands like the Four Seasons, the Capris and the Shirelles — groups that incorporated the street-corner crooning of black music with the pumped-up energy of rock. (Jiler, a reporter and author, wrote the book and lyrics for “Avenue X” when he was covering Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst riots for the Village Voice.)
Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth has long been a fan of the way “Avenue X” uses the human voice to depoliticize the conversation about race. But she held back from programming the piece because she was challenged by one particular story element. Her solution was to ask Leslee and Jiler if they would consider revisiting the script, and they both happily agreed.
“It was always a really good piece of work,” says Booth, who directs.
“They made it a really fantastic piece of work and particularly they made it a really fantastic piece of work for Atlanta.”
The Alliance workshopped the piece over the summer, and the result has been to rearrange the order of songs and alter the ending. Booth felt the piece could not stop with a tragedy, but needed a sense of resolution. The play’s crucial act of devastation “can’t be the period at the end of the sentence,” she says, taking care not to spoil the surprise. “We know what the price is. What was the payoff?”
Doing an a cappella musical is terra incognita for almost any director.
Leslee believes “Avenue X” is the only complete a cappella musical ever written. To help with the process, Booth brought in Darryl Jovan Williams, the vocal arranger for her “Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL” last year, to serve as musical director.
“There is something pure and naked about making a cappella music,” Booth says. “You’re not allowing people to get swept away by spectacle. You are focusing attention on the players at hand, so there is something about a cappella singing that is as pure a form of storytelling as you could possibly imagine.”
From the beginning, Leslee said he had to resist suggestions to add percussion or other elements. “There’s something about the actors creating a musical all by themselves that just can’t be beat.”
Says Booth: “There’s no one but the singers to maintain the pitch, to maintain the tempo, to maintain the dynamics. There’s no conductor. There’s no band. There’s no metronome. There are eight singers.” That’s it.
Though the Alliance stage will be the largest venue the show has ever played, Leslee says “Avenue X” works on the most miniscule of scales.
“A young company did it in New York a couple of years ago, where they had $1.98 to do the entire production‚ and it was absolutely wonderful.”
What makes “Avenue X” large, the composer says, is the issues.
“It’s a story about singers who want to succeed in their singing, and you want to pull for them to do that. It’s life and death for them.”
Previews through Tuesday. Opens Wednesday. Through Feb. 7. $25-$60.
Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Midtown. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org