Boardman native Rob Zellers brings Strayhorn’s life to stage
Rob Zellers is no stranger to seeing his work on stage.
The 1970 Boardman High School graduate is the author of such plays as “The Chief” (about Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney), “Harry’s Friendly Service” and “Mr. Wheeler’s.” The last two were staged at Youngstown State University and “Mr. Wheeler’s” had its world premiere there.
But mounting those productions was simple compared to the musical “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For,” which will have its world premiere Sept. 19 through Oct. 11 by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Now, with the show he’s been developing for a decade in the home stretch, Zellers has been sequestered from the cast and creative team with a case of COVID-19. In a telephone interview Monday, Zellers said he’s been participating in rehearsals via livestream, but it’s not the same. He was hoping to join the cast in person this week.
“I can’t dwell on that,” he said. “I’ve been working on this for too many years. Something like this could snowball me down a hill if I’m not just resolute.”
Zellers first got the idea to do a musical on Strayhorn — a gay African-American composer who grew up in Pittsburgh and is known for his collaborations with Duke Ellington and such songs as “Lush Life,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and “Lotus Blossom” — when he was assigned to do a book review for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on a biography of Ellington.
“I have a love of cultural history and music history, which was instilled from growing up with my mom’s hi-fi and dozens of albums,” Zellers said. “That was my first taste of black music. I remember those album covers and reading the liner notes.
“Reading the book, I already knew who Billy Strayhorn was, but being a playwright, we do look for stories, things that could do well on stage and, oh, this is a story. This is the kind of thing we look for.”
From the beginning, Zellers imagined it as a musical and could see how the songs Strayhorn wrote or co-wrote could be used to tell the story of his life. The only problem was he’d never attempted to write a musical before. However, he saw plenty of them at the Youngstown Playhouse when he was growing up and jumped in with determination and maybe a bit of naivete.
“It’s totally been a major learning curve, very steep,’ he said. “I’ve learned so much about the mechanics of adding music, how you can grab just a piece of a song now and really use it later or have it keep recurring. I knew all this stuff but didn’t really live it (until this project). I’m learning the importance about every single lyric in a song and how critical it is to telling the story.”
Adding to the complexity is a story that is populated with famous people — Strayhorn, Ellington, singers Billie Holiday and Lena Horne — and songs written solely by Strayhorn, collaborations with Ellington and a couple of songs written solely by Ellington. All of that required negotiating stage rights and life rights for the people portrayed and song rights with the different publishing companies.
One of the first people he approached early on was Billy Porter, someone he knew initially as a talented teenager when Zellers served as education director at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Porter had just won a Tony Award for the musical “Kinky Boots,” and they met in New York.
“He was thinking he’s like to direct or be in it, but then his career went through the roof,” Zellers said.
Porter ended up connecting him with another Carnegie Mellon University alum, Kent Gash, who is directing the musical and became Zellers’ collaborator on the book. And Porter is a producer on the show.
Zellers heaped praise on Gash, choreographer Dell Howlett and the rest of the creative team, and the cast.
Strayhorn will be played by Darius de Haas, who provided the singing voice for Shy Baldwin on the series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and had created a cabaret show built around Strayhorn’s songs.
J.D. Mollison, who appeared on Broadway in “Les Miserables,” plays Ellington and Charl Brown, a Tony nominee for his portrayal of Smokey Robinson in “Motown: The Musical,” plays Aaron Bridgers, one of Strayhorn’s true loves.
The Pittsburgh run not only is the show’s premiere, but it also will serve as an audition for its future. Zellers said invitations have been sent to the “money types,” potential investors to finance its next steps on a path toward a New York run. And even though he is a producer on the show, Zellers said his focus now is on any last-minute changes to the show … and getting healthy.
“I wish I could tell you where we’re going next,” Zellers said. “A lot of successful shows I know about have more than one stop before a New York production.”
If you go …
WHAT: “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For”
WHEN: Sept. 19 to Oct. 11. Show times are 7 p.m. Tuesday (except for the first performance, which starts at 8 p.m.), 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $35 to $88 and are available online at PPT.org/strayhorn and by calling 412-316-1600.