On July 14th 1981 a show opened in London which had travelled from New York but originated in New Orleans. ONE MO’ TIME grew from an idea supported by people donating their time into a hugely successful musical delight which toured the world for several years.
Being taken to the theatre by friends for a birthday treat is always memorable. And so it was for my 21st when, as hard-up art students, my dear friends Julia and Shirley scraped together the money to buy us the last three seats on the back row of the Upper Circle at London’s Phoenix Theatre to see the jazzy 1920s black musical revue ONE MO’ TIME. It is an evening- and a show- which I have never forgotten.
The show had a fascinating history, from its first creation in New Orleans, to audiences clamouring for further performances, developing into longer runs and bigger halls, growing in popularity – opening in New York, London and then touring globally.
ONE MO’ TIME is a musical revue conceived, written by and starring Vernel Bagneris. It recreates an evening of 1920s African-American vaudeville, set at the Lyric Theatre of New Orleans one sultry night in 1926 . Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey played the Lyric, as did Sweet Mama Stringbean, later better known as Ethel Waters. (Sadly the Lyric burned down in 1927).
The Lyric was on the black vaudeville circuit known as the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.). To the circuit artists themselves, the acronym stood for “Tough On Black Asses”, for the hours were long, the pay was short and the bosses mercilessly exploited the workers- as people of colour found in so many industries.
The show centres around Big Bertha’s touring vaudeville song and dance show, with offstage dialogue scenes interlacing the numbers. The star of the show was undoubtedly the music, but the backstage gossiping, rivalry, hardships, intrigues and flirtations were all interwoven to add texture to the music and give a supporting story for the performers to work with.
Originating in New Orleans as a one nighter, the show’s wildly enthusiastic reception demanded further performances, from where the show’s popularity grew exponentially. The Off-Broadway production opened in New York at the Village Gate in October 1979, running for several years. At the 23rd Annual Grammy Awards in 1980 the recording of the show was nominated for the Best Original Cast Show Album (losing to that year’s big hitter, EVITA). The live recording (produced by legendary Jerry Wexler – who also co-produced the show in New York) captures perfectly the crackle of enthusiasm audiences had for this show, and the album was a substantial seller in the soundtracks category.
In 1981 the original New York cast were invited to bring the show to London, and the production opened at the 1200-seat Cambridge Theatre on July 14 to excellent reviews (as evidenced in the poster below); outlasting its predicted run, in November the show transferred to the 1000-seat Phoenix Theatre, where it ran until July 17th, 1982, achieving a total of 486 performances, along the way earning an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Musical.
The performances were – by the time of arrival in London – highly polished, and the cast’s professionalism perhaps threw a harsher light on the scripted segments between the numbers. The dialogue was always designed to feel somewhat improvised, which gave the show a feeling of rough-and-ready authenticity, although some disagreed that it made the show feel a little “scrappy”. Whatever your reactions to the script, when the songs appeared they stole the show, in soulful, humorous and engaging performances.
The show encompassed twenty songs, all well-chosen; from the heartfelt “He’s Funny That Way” to the defiant “After You’ve Gone”; from the upbeat dance numbers including “Wait Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston” to the hilariously suggestive “Kitchen Man” and “You’ve Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole”, the songs were balanced perfectly to provide highs, lows and laughs in satisfying measure.
Audiences hugged it. British audiences loved the jazzy orchestrations, the sometimes sweet, sometimes raunchy songs and the vitality of dances including the Charleston, the black bottom and the cakewalk performed by a hugely talented cast who seemed to be enjoying it as much as we were – it all added up to happy audiences at curtain down. Even when I saw it, halfway through its run, audiences really took this show to its heart – they stood, stamped, clapped and cheered. As did we.
In Summer 2001 a staging of ONE MO’ TIME at Williamstown Theatre Festival in USA got a very enthusiastic response and so the show was planned to open at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre in February 2002. Despite good notices, audiences didn’t materialise and sadly the show closed after a few months.
No one can say for certain why a revival succeeds or fails. All that I can tell you is that in my opinion the show is ready for another revival, perhaps in the UK. After the success of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ I think that this could be a hit as a co-production between several smaller-scale theatres who could share its extended run to make it financially viable.
I would love to see it return. But thanks to the album, I can go back to the original any time I want to. And with the resources below, you can experience some of the atmosphere from this very special show. Enjoy!
Hear Vernel Bagneris talk about the genesis of the show in a New Orleans Public Radio interview from 2016 here
You can listen to the original cast recording of ONE MO’ TIME here
You can see the original cast perform the musical numbers from the show (very sadly the connecting dialogue scenes have been edited out of this recording adapted for German TV) here
For anyone interested, here is a track listing of the Musical Numbers:
- Down in Honky Tonk Town
- Kiss Me Sweet
- Miss Jenny’s Ball
- Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home
- I’ve Got What It Takes
- C.C. Rider
- The Graveyard
- He’s Funny That Way
- Kitchen Man
- Wait Till You See My Baby Do the Charleston
- New Orleans Hop Scop Blues
- Everybody Loves My Baby
- You’ve Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole
- After You’ve Gone
- My Man Blues
- Papa De Da Da
- Muddy Waters
- There’s Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight