Hearing about The Reunion: Miles, Bird and Trane, a play now running at the 45th Street Theater in NYC, the description caught our eye. “The play details a fantasy reunion concert where these jazz icons explore the nature of their creativity as they confront their own and each other’s demons.” The premise is an interesting one, if a bit contrived. Despite their early association during the birth of bebop, these three giants in jazz died decades apart, with Parker going first in nearly apocryphal fashion in Nica’s apartment in 1955, Coltrane dying of liver disease in 1967 and Miles succumbing to pneumonia in 1991.
This isn’t some sort of jazz heaven play, is it? “No, no, but it’s not exactly clear when they’re meeting,” explained the playwright, Jim Marentic. “If you’re looking for a coherent time line, you won’t find it. But you’ll find lots of factual things in there about the musicians and their music.”
It seems that there are two large challenges that the actors must meet to make a play like this work. First, they must be believable as these larger-than-life personalities. Second, the actors must somehow get across their special musical gifts that are more appropriate heard than described. I guess that’s why they call it acting. But for every Ray or Walk The Line or even Bird, there are so many noble failures in the field of musical biopics.
Marentic was not unaware of those failures. He particularly felt that jazz has gotten short shrift from the theater world. “I felt like nobody has portrayed jazz musicians as philosophical, educated and well-thinking individuals,” said the Minneapolis-based Marentic. “I wanted to get away from clichés. And I wanted to fill that void for plays about jazz.”
Did the actors study up and try to do literal portrayals? Did they transform themselves into the characters physically? “Well, each role is different. Michael Wright, the actor playing Miles Davis, really got into it. He knew a lot about Miles because he had been preparing to play him for a movie. He looks a lot like him and he got that voice [Miles’ distinctive rasp] down. The other actors [Stacey Dotson and Marcus Naylor] are great too. They play them in character, with Bird as this colorful but troubled guy and Trane as this very quiet and spiritual man. You know, I was talking with Benny Golson about Trane and he told me that John didn’t have much to say. And Benny was crying when he told me this. Forty years later, can you imagine? That’s how powerful Trane’s impact was.”
Musical greatness aside, substance abuse figured large in each of their lives. Do we see a Coltrane pre- or post-recovery? And how did you handle Miles who was constantly reinventing himself? Do we see Bird’s young acolyte of the 40s, the serious and ambitious musician of the 50s, the cocky and dapper bandleader of the 60s, the freaky fro-ed iconoclast of the 70s or the vainglorious entertainer of the 80s, replete with his puffy and silky outfits and hair of unknown origin? Marentic explained that the structure of the play and the dynamics of the relationships between the musicians formed the basis for their characters.
He then proceeded to go through the play- acting out the parts, recalling key lines, and describing the set and lighting-for the better part of 20 minutes. His retelling could well have been a one man performance art piece itself. But the crux of the story is that Bird finds a funkified Miles (possibly of the ’70s variety) still addicted to dope and the two bicker over issues, personal and professional. For the record, the play is not set at a specific time, but the three perform a reunion concert (a very jazz thing) and the last act shows them after that concert.
One thing for sure, the specter of drug abuse hangs over all the men, with Coltrane in the role as the philosophical and spiritual healer. The other two are still grappling with their demons, with Davis’ psychic pain traced to issues with his mother and with racism. In addition, there’s a role of “The Apparition” a female who is sort of a combination Greek Chorus as well as representation of the women in their lives. That role is played by Ellen Martin, a jazz singer who has collaborated with Marentic with this production and other performances.
The characters are seen with their instruments, but do not play any live music. Recorded music from all three men, including “Blue in Green” and “Ascension,” is used as a dramatic device throughout the play.
The audience thus far for the play seems to be split between jazz heads and theater buffs, with a smattering of both. But Marentic doesn’t think the play requires in-depth knowledge of jazz or the lives of these musicians in order to appreciate the production. “It’s the interaction, not the chords or scales. It’s not a listing of musical terms. I didn’t want to just put on a concert with this thing.”
This is Marentic’s first play. He said it took him about three years, off and on, to write. He revised it at least eight times. One aspect that took him a long time was the research. “I had to read a lot of biographical material,” he said, sighing. “I wanted the detail to be right.” Although they did lots of readings and workshops with the play, Martin said that Marentic “wrote from what he knew and he loved.”
For him the play was also a chance to get across his own philosophical ideas about creativity. “There’s a lot of talk about breaking through. There’s a philosophical aspect to creativity that I wanted to show. Where does it come from? Where does it go?” Marentic called the current staging of the play a showcase of sorts for future presentation. “I’m hoping to find a backer and get some support to put this play on again.”
Written by Marentic and directed by Chuck Patterson, The Reunion features Michael Wright, Marcus Naylor, Stacey Dotson and Ellen Martin, at The 45th Street Theater, 354 West 45th Street, NYC, through February 14th. Tickets are $15 and are available at the box office or at the local theater site.