A revolutionary jazz musician enjoys a quick rise to fame, pulls away from the church and his family toward drugs and mental illness, and commits suicide at the age of 33. But “The Donny Hathaway Story” isn’t a typical canned, melodramatic Vh1 celebrity expose: It’s live, refreshing and onstage this weekend at the Yale Cabaret.
A tribute to the life journey of a legendary musician, “The Donny Hathaway Story” was written, produced and proposed to the Cabaret by Kenneth Robinson DRA ’09. The production features a cast of six Drama School students alongside community musicians who were chosen to add an urban, authentic feel to the ’70s jazz club environment. Robinson said the show is also unique because it is the first original musical to be shown the Cabaret this season and it promises to draw a diverse audience.
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“It’s a soul musical, with an all-black cast and the potential to outlive Feb. 24 when it closes here,” he said. “It will be interesting to see who this show brings together under the common bind of his music.”
As a first-year acting student, Robinson said, he had originally planned just to participate in other productions, but he decided to create the show when presented with the resources and potential of the Cabaret.
“I don’t think I would have had the initiative to write it if it weren’t for the Cabaret,” Robinson said. “It’s where they challenge students to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do in their disciplines.”
Robinson said the show’s inspiration came from his passion for Hathaway’s music, which stretches back to his childhood. He said creating the show forced him to learn about Hathaway and will hopefully educate others about the musician’s life.
“His voice is unforgettable, haunting, passionate, inspiring, emotional. It’s stayed with me my whole life,” Robinson said. “There hasn’t been a lot written about him, but he has been so influential to various singers, including myself … In a dream world, people would see the show, and go buy his CD.”
In constructing the show, Robinson tells Hathaway’s life story by arranging 10 of his less-popular songs, eight of which were written by the musician himself, with brief dramatic interludes. This process is echoed in the lyrics of one of Hathaway’s ballads featured in the production: “Listen to the melody ’cause my love is in there hiding.”
“It was music first because that’s all I had,” Robinson said. “The music was all there was where he was speaking directly. The scenes go into, out of and through the songs. The show is all around his music. They’re interwoven.”
Lead musician and musical director Martin Parker said the show’s music feels like a fusion of different styles.
“Gospel, soulful, a little jazz. It’s kind of all around,” he said. “A little R&B, almost down-home ghetto at times with an African feel.”
One of the actors, Gamal Palmer DRA ’08, said the production creates a uniform connection between the dramatic portions of the show and the music by representing the tone of Hathaway’s music in the play’s structure.
“It feels like a song — the tone … It’s the life of Donny Hathaway through a song, which is right,” Palmer said. “Come ready and chill. Just sit back and feel … a vibe, more than expecting a historical representation of his life.”
In the end, “The Donny Hathaway Story” focuses on the well-known theme of conflict and choice.
“All great art comes out of conflict and tension. All great harmony comes out of dissonance,” Hathaway says near the close of the first act.
Robinson said the show’s appeal for students lies in its poignancy and relevance to common human experience.
“If you are genuinely interested in music and what’s behind it, if you know anyone who’s dealt with depression, suicide, bisexuality,” Robinson said. “It’s also for people who don’t really care for musicals in the ‘Oklahoma,’ happy-go-lucky type … Above all, it’s the story of a musician.”
“The Donny Hathaway Story” runs from Feb. 22 to Feb. 24 at the Yale Cabaret. Performances begin at 8:30 each day and again at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with doors opening for dinner and drinks at 7 and 10 p.m.