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'After Midnight' brings music of legendary Cotton Club to Broadway

By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - "After Midnight," a Broadway musical featuring original arrangements by jazz great Duke Ellington, melds classic songs from the 1920s and 30s with dance to recreate Harlem's Golden Age and the legendary Cotton Club.

The show, which includes a big band of 17 musicians chosen by Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, 25 dancers and singers and rotating guest stars, opens on Sunday.

It joins a list of Broadway productions showcasing music - from Motown hits and Beatles classics to 1960s tunes by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and rock'n'roll legend Janis Joplin.

"Beautiful," a musical about singer-songwriter Carole King, will open early in 2014 and "The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream," a hybrid concert/Broadway show featuring the '60s group and hits such as "Groovin' and "It's a Beautiful Morning," will return for a limited run later this year.

"After Midnight" director and choreographer Warren Carlyle said putting original arrangements from decades ago to dance posed unique challenges for him.

"I am such a fan of tradition and what came before us but I also feel we have a duty to carry jazz music forward and those orchestrations have really inspired me," said Carlyle, who also choreographed "Follies" and "Finian's Rainbow."

"I wanted to honor what came before but also feel free to reinvent," he added.

CELEBRATING AN ERA

The more than 20 songs in the show, set against a narrative of Langston Hughes poetry, harken to Harlem and the Cotton Club nightclub, which was immortalized in Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film of the same name.

"It is a celebration of jazz music done in a contemporary way with some really talented dancers, singers, actors and musicians," said Carlyle.

Producer Scott Sanders described the Cotton Club in its heyday as the coolest place in the city, which attracted the leading talent of the day.

"Great performers would drop into the production show and do a couple of numbers, so you had the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Judy Garland and Fanny Brice all going to 125th Street on a Sunday night and doing their songs in this incredible institution," he said.

"It was the Jazz Age and Prohibition and people wanting to get dressed up and have a good time."

It's that atmosphere that Carlyle tries to recreate with each song and the story told within it.

"After Midnight" originated from a production called "Cotton Club Parade." The Broadway show will include a rotating list of guest stars including R&B singer and the winner of the third season of the American Idol singing competition Fantasia Barrino and pop and country singer-songwriter k.d. lang.

"It was the first spark of marrying Broadway and dancers and singers and performers with jazz and this music and the Ellington charts and the classic, timeless songs," said Sanders about the original production.

Although songs such as "Cotton Club Stomp," "Daybreak Express" and "Creole Love Call," were written decades ago, Sanders said the tunes are put through the prism of 2013.

"It's a great soup of incredible ingredients," he added.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)

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