Before there were The Supremes, The Vandellas or The Marvelettes, there were The Shirelles. Broadway’s newest play at the Broadhurst Theatre, Baby It’s You, tells the story of New Jersey housewife Florence Greenberg and how she founded Scepter Records in the late 1950s after discovering a group of African American female singers who would become the Shirelles. In the play Greenberg is portrayed by Tony Award winning actress Beth Leavel.
The show opens with a medley of songs which include the late 1950s classics “Rockin Robin,” “Mr. Lee,” “Book of Love,” and “Dance With Me,” before introducing the main character Florence Greenberg. The first act follows Greenberg as she discovers The Shirelles and starts her first record label, as well as the problems she faces as a white woman trying to promote a all-black singing group during the times of racial segregation. Also the play adds a interracial relationship when Florence begins to fall in love with her songwriter Luther Dixon midway through the first act.
For the most part Baby It’s You is not actually about The Shirelles. The group in fact only appears in scenes which serve to depict concert performances and studio recording sessions. So ultimately the audience comes away with not really knowing anything about the individual members of the group, hence not really connecting with them. Another supporting character based on a real life person, who also serves as narrator, is Doug “Jocko” Henderson/Chuck Jackson. Again the same problem arises with how Jackson is portrayed in the sense that the audience really doesn’t get a sense of who he really was.
In portraying Florence, Leavel convincingly presents Greenberg’s strong business sense, humor, wit, and bold attitude. Throughout the play Leavel as Greenberg is constantly reminding the audience how she wasted most of her life in New Jersey living a dull life as a housewife and how she is struggling to balance family with business (with business winning over family). The play tries to show that Greenberg was going up against everything society expected a housewife to be in the late 1950s and early 1960s and how Greenberg must have felt going against those expectations. Luther Dixon on the other hand, portrayed by Allan Louis, comes across as the character with the most layers.
What is kind of distracting however is having the same actors play three different characters in different scenes. This causes some of the focus to become lost; one minute actress Erica Ash is portraying a member of The Shirelles and the next minute she is Dionne Warwick singing “Walk On By” with no convincing difference between the two portrayals (no fault of the actress). Also because there are so many songs and portrayals of other artist the songs from The Shirelles don’t stand out as much as songs such as “I Met Him On A Sunday,” “Soldier Boy,” “Foolish Girl,” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.”
The play’s strong points are the use of visuals and storytelling to connect with what was going on in society at the time. The play shows how events like the start of the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination had a impact on the music of the time through time period pictures and video clips, as well as through narration from Geno Henderson. The play also adequately gives a look into what was happening in regards to record labels and payola schemes at the time.
Another positive is the song choices which are fan favorites that have stood the test of time. People of all ages will definitely enjoy the energetic music, which creates a fun feeling.
Last, the play is successful in getting across the message that “timing is everything,” evidenced by the rise and fall of The Shirelles, although it is depicted anti-climatically. With that said the play does teach a lot about the inner workings of the music industry of the time and how segregation was a major barrier.