Alex Webb: Cafe Society Swing is “a story that deserves to be told”

Creator Alex Webb on Cafe Society Swing, the show taking audiences into New York’s first desegregated club.

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“This December, it is 80 years since a little club opened in New York’s Greenwich Village offering something new in America – a completely desegregated space where black and white people could mix on stage, backstage and out front. Perhaps a hint of the future importance of the venue lay in its choice of opening headliner, the then up-and-coming Billie Holiday.

“The idea of basing a musical revue on Cafe Society came to me some years back when the London Jazz Festival offered me the opportunity to create a themed show. There had already been so many tribute shows to great artists that I was casting around for a different idea. I just happened to pick up a copy of Billie Holiday’s autobiography in a junk shop and there it was. I could pay tribute to a venue, not just an artist.

“The more I researched, the more fascinating it became.

“Club owner Barney Josephson, who died in 1988, was a shoe salesman who had become a jazz fan, and a left-wing political radical too. However inauspicious the opening of his venue, it soon became a magnet for some of the greatest jazz artists in history and a hub for the American left.

Cafe Society Swing at Theatre Royal Stratford East (Image: Idil Sukan, courtesy of Kate Morley PR)
Cafe Society Swing at Theatre Royal Stratford East (Image: Idil Sukan, courtesy of Kate Morley PR)

“Everyone who played there – including Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie – had kind words to say about the place.  Horne, who went on to Hollywood stardom, called it ‘the sweetest gig I ever did in my life.’

“The venue presented lots of wonderful music. It staged swing, of course, but also blues, gospel and even folk music. Josephson offered it all. The only yardstick was quality.

“I recruited a band of top London jazz musicians and three extremely versatile singers, Alexander Stewart, Gwyneth Herbert and Paris-based China Moses, daughter of jazz legend Dee Dee Bridgewater.

“The original one-off production earned great reviews. The following year we were able to run it for a week at the Tricycle Theatre [now Kiln Theatre] in Kilburn. We moved towards a semi-dramatised format. Then, with a series of subsequent rewrites, I took it into more theatrical territory. I had an actor telling the story from three different viewpoints via three different characters.

Cafe Society Swing at Theatre Royal Stratford East (Image: Idil Sukan, courtesy of Kate Morley PR)
Cafe Society Swing at Theatre Royal Stratford East (Image: Idil Sukan, courtesy of Kate Morley PR)

“The story is as fascinating as the music. Having made this bold stride towards desegregation in the Roosevelt era, when the American left was powerful, the club ran into trouble after 1945 when the Second World War ended and the ‘red scare’ began.

“During this time there was a hysterical fear of communist infiltration of the media and arts, and left-wing leaning Cafe Society was an easy target. The fact that luminaries like Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Langston Hughes and Orson Welles patronised the place didn’t help. The New York press and columnists campaigned for the club’s closure, finally succeeding in 1949.

“Our show has now played at London’s Leicester Square Theatre and 59E59 Theaters in New York. We’re all delighted to be at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 5 June. The new production stars actor Peter Gerald, stunning vocalists Vimala Row, Judi Jackson, Ciyo Brown and, making a return visit, China Moses.

“It’s a story that deserves to be told, featuring some of the most immortal music of the 20th century.”

Cafe Society Swing plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 16 June