Rob Zellers has struck a chord with his play “Something to Live For.”
The Pittsburgh-based playwright who grew up in Boardman tells the life story of jazz great Billy Strayhorn in the piece.
It’s a true story of Strayhorn’s impoverished upbringing in a struggling Pittsburgh neighborhood, his discovery and rise as a composer who worked with the great Duke Ellington, and his brave life up to his untimely death in 1967 at age 51.
“Something to Live For” has attracted a first-rate cadre of Broadway folks. None other than Billy Porter, the Tony Award-winning star of “Kinky Boots,” has come aboard as director and to play the role of Strayhorn.
Porter’s presence gives “Something to Live For” instant credibility.
Zellers said Porter was immediately interested in the play from the moment he first approached him about it.
That’s partly due to the fact that Porter is also a Pittsburgh native who grew up about a mile from Strayhorn’s childhood home. He is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University.
“Something to Live For” will take its first step toward becoming a production when Porter directs a reading of the play for invited theater industry insiders Oct. 3 at the Second Stage Theater on Broadway.
Porter’s team includes Broadway veterans Renee Elise Goldsberry and Norm Lewis, plus music supervisor Zane Mark and musical director Darryl Ivey.
Goldsberry will play the roles of legendary jazz vocalists Lena Horn, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday; Lewis will play the role of Duke Ellington.
Zellers is understandably excited about his play’s prospects.
It’s a topic that seems to be in tune with the times. Strayhorn is one of the great composer/arrangers in the history of American jazz, but his name is not widely known.
“Something to Live For” could introduce him – and his music – to a national audience.
Strayhorn’s life was anything but typical.
“He grew up in a shack with a dirt floor in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh,” said Zellers. “He was a hard worker, and very bright, but a little bit sickly. He worked at a local drugstore and saved his money and bought a player piano, in which the player part didn’t work. He met Duke Ellington at a show in the old Stanley Theater, and Duke said, ‘Come work for me,’ and the rest is history. They were a composing team for close to 30 years.”
Zellers also fills in the details on Strayhorn’s life, including his difficulties working with Ellington, his travels around the world as a performer, his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his life as an openly gay African-American man in the 20th century.
Strayhorn’s compositions form the musical backdrop – including “Take the A Train,” which became Ellington’s signature song.
“Audiences will recognize a few of the songs, but others will be a revelation to them,” said Zellers.
He’s hoping the stage reading sparks interest among the theater insiders who will be in attendance, with the eventual result being a full-blown run at a major theater. Zellers is ready to do some rewrites, based on the feedback he gets.
“Something to Live For” is not the only Zellers play that is gaining traction. “Safekeeping,” a play he wrote about two artistic but offbeat young men living on Youngstown’s North Side, has drawn interest from Playhouse on the Square, a professional theater in Memphis, Tenn. The theater has scheduled a reading of the play for its new works program.
In the Youngstown area, Zellers is best known for his drama “Harry’s Friendly Service,” which is set in downtown Youngstown in the late ’70s, when the steel industry was collapsing. The Youngstown Playhouse staged “Harry’s” earlier this year.
In February, Youngstown State University Theater will present the premiere of another Zellers play, “Mr. Wheeler’s.” The play is set in the restaurant that was once in Youngstown’s Uptown.
WARREN COMEDY CLUB IS SET TO REOPEN
After taking a couple years off, the Warren Comedy Club is returning for the 2017-18 season at a new location: Cafe 422 restaurant.
The monthly shows will kick off Sept. 23 with a solid lineup of local favorites Katrina Brown, Kevin Whelan, Greg Smrdel and Eric Thompson, who runs the club. Show time is 8 p.m.
The WCC was at the Sunrise Inn in downtown Warren its first three years, but has found a more spacious location in Cafe 422, which is at 4422 Youngstown Road in Warren.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance at WarrenComedyClub.com.
Guests also can make reservations for dinner before or after each show at Cafe 422 by calling the restaurant. For the first show, dinner reservations should be made by Sept. 22.
Looking ahead, the Warren Comedy Club has booked Bill Boronkay and Greg Smrdel for Oct. 21; Kenny Miller and Thompson, Nov. 18; and Kirk Bogos and Jerry Jaffe, Dec. 16.
KIP WINGER in solo show AT THELMA’S sports nook
Hair-metal guitarist Kip Winger rose to national success in the late ’80s with his eponymously named band, but we haven’t heard much from him in a long time.
Winger will resurface for a solo show Sept. 27 at Thelma’s Sports Nook, 285 E. High St., in Sharpsville, Pa. Doors open at 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance at ticketleap.com.