Step Inside 'Smokey Joe's Cafe,' a Parade Of Pop History

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Julia Russell
John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper and Kyle Taylor Parker in "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Sifting through the catalog of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller can feel like a virtual tour of pop history, from the artists who popularized their songs — Elvis Presley, the Coasters, the Drifters, Ben E. King — to the songs themselves, a panoply of hits including "Hound Dog," "Jail House Rock," "Stand by Me," "On Broadway, "Spanish Harlem" and "Love Potion No. 9" (and that just skims the surface). Leiber and Stoller's over 70 hits span the 1950s to the early 1970s — no surprise, then, that they've been inducted into both the Songwriters and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame, and that, as with so many other pop writers, their music made it to Broadway, in the 1995 musical revue Smokey Joe's Cafe. The show ran for nearly five years, was nominated for five Tonys, and its cast recording won a Grammy.

Now, the show has come back to life in a new production off-Broadway (in an open run at Stage 42), where a vibrant young cast is introducing Leiber and Stoller's songs to a diverse audience. As cast members Alysha Umphress and Dwayne Cooper and director Joshua Bergasse explain on this week's Billboard on Broadway podcast, the show has surprising depths. "They say it's the original jukebox musical, but instead of trying to shoehorn these songs into positions where they had to tell a story or give a character arc, they just did it as a revue," Bergasse explains about the show's fairly unique format. "You can just appreciate the songs for what they are -- and I think it works better that way." "Every song is its own story," Umphress adds.  

Though Broadway has seen many successful revues, Smokey Joe's Cafe still stands out as a pioneering show. "It was one of those great shows that features so many African-American people," says Cooper. "It's a rite of passage for me to be part of it." Its enduring appeal, the trio say, has everything to do with the music itself. "The lyrics feel timeless -- songs like "Stand By Me," the message transcends time," Cooper says. "They just knew how to write hits," Umphress says of Leiber and Stoller. "The show isn't even their whole catalog....and you still get so much impact from 40 songs [in the show]." 

In their chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Bergasse, Cooper and Umphress delve into how they brought a modern spin to Smokey Joe's Cafe -- and why audiences are still going crazy for it. 

#BillboardonBroadway is a weekly podcast devoted to all things musical theater and their overlap with pop music. Click here to subscribe to the #BillboardonBroadway podcast on iTunes, and let us know what you think on Twitter (@rebeccamilzoff) or by rating the podcast on iTunes.