Obie Award winning actor Darius de Haas is on the cusp of releasing his first solo CD, Day Dream: Variations on Strayhorn, which is an off-shoot of his highly successful cabaret/concert shows on composer Billy Strayhorn. A performer comfortable with every spectrum of music theater, be it the classic works of Rodgers and Hammerstein or the current writings of Adam Guettel and Ricky Ian Gordon, Darius was kind enough to spend one of his rare days off discussing his career and the upcoming album, which is being pre-released on May 21st at www.psclassics.com, followed by a general release on June 4th.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Darius.
Darius: Great to be here! I love Talkin' Broadway.
JF: I see that the two of us will be sharing a stage soon at the Talkin' Broadway party on June 1st.
DD: Yeah! It should be fun!
JF: Have you picked out what you are going to sing yet?
DD: Not yet, as I have to confirm my accompanist for the evening. More than not I'm going to be doing something from my new Billy Strayhorn CD, Day Dream. The songs are not the easiest to play ... so I have to make sure I get somebody who won't be freaked out by it (laughs)
JF: I just got the CD last week; I've really enjoyed it. I love the fact that, although it is devoted to a single composer, it encompasses a wide range of musical styles.
JF: It's fun. Although if one goes into it thinking he or she is in for a slow, smoky jazzy CD it's a bit of a shock. Within minutes you segue into in some mighty fine gospel action.
DD: (Laughs) Well, if I kept it at the same decibel level, people would start nodding off!
JF: What I really like is the fact that many of the songs on the album are new to me. While I am not the greatest authority on Strayhorn's music by any means, you seem to have recorded a lot of obscure tunes; some of them being premier recordings to boot.
DD: I'm glad you appreciated that. While there are technically only two premier recordings on the album, there are a lot of rarely recorded songs on there. "Your Love Has Faded," for instance, has been recorded mainly as an instrumental. There is a vocal version by Ozzie Bailey but it isn't in wide circulation. Although, since Strayhorn is more widely known now thanks to David Hajdu's biography on him [Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn ], his recordings are getting more exposure.
JF: I noticed that Elvis Costello wrote the lyrics for one of the songs on your album, "My Flame Burns Blue," which was originally known as "Blood Count." Did he write it specifically for your album?
DD: No, he did it on his own. I was touring with Roy Nathanson [a saxophonist featured on the CD], and Deidre Rodman [the musical director and pianist for the album] on a project Roy did with Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry called Fire At Keaton's Bar and Grill. Deidre was talking to Elvis one night after a concert and mentioned that she was working on this Strayhorn project with me, and Elvis mentioned that he had written lyrics to one of Strayhorn's songs. Deidre told me about it and mentioned that Elvis was going to send her a copy of the song. I heard it and instantly fell in love with it.
The song was originally written as an instrumental piece. Somebody else wrote lyrics for it a few years earlier, but though they are wonderful as well, they are also incredibly depressing! At that point in the CD, I didn't want to go that direction; I wanted something that dealt with death in a more poetic way. So I contacted Elvis and he gave me permission to sing it for a concert and later to record it as well; it's the premier recording of that version, by the way.
JF: Are you working on any projects, or is the CD your life right now?
DD: I just got done doing some concerts with Ricky Ian Gordon at the Guggenheim. I also sang at a tribute to Richard Rodgers as part of Now And Then, the Carnegie Hall series Michael Feinstein puts together where modern composers perform their favorite songs by the featured writer as well as songs of their own. I also did a piece recently with Kirsten Childs, who wrote The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. So I'm keeping myself ...
JF:" ... "remarkably busy" would be the term.
DD: Yeah, I've been keeping myself really busy the past three weeks. Today is the first day off I've had in a while!
JF: What drew you to Billy Strayhorn and his music?
DD: I had read Hajdu's biography on Strayhorn, which really spoke to me because I have a strong family connection with Strayhorn. My mother produced the first tribute, that I know of at least, to Duke Ellington after he had died in 1974. She did four annual tributes between 1974 through 1978. Naturally, they featured a lot of great musicians playing Ellington/Strayhorn collaborations; Strayhorn, after all, wrote "Take The 'A' Train," which was Ellington's theme song.
When I was doing Marie Christine at Lincoln Center in 1999, I was talking to Audra McDonald about getting into the concert circuit. I had done cabaret shows and some minor concert work up to that point, but I really wanted to get into larger scale concert work. She told me that I really needed to find a particular composer to focus on, like she did with Kurt Weill. Of course, I can't pick anybody safe and easy; I had to pick somebody more obscure and challenging (laughs). So I started working on a show about Strayhorn. I wanted to show how his appeal encompassed a wide spectrum of ages and cultures. After all, he was a black, gay man in a very macho jazz culture and received the respect of Duke Ellington and a lot of very hard nosed, hard-core jazz musicians. And in addition to jazz he wrote cabaret tunes, songs for Lena Horne, collaborated on theater projects, and wrote a lot of big band stuff that is only recently becoming known.
People like to dismiss him as simply being Duke Ellington's assistant. Not to take anything from Ellington, as the two men had a remarkable friendship and working relationship, but it's nice to be able to bring to light Strayhorn's accomplishments and have him take his place amongst the great composers. It's a worthy mission!
I premiered the show at Lincoln Center's American Songbook concerts, which are produced by Ira Weitzman, and got a great review in The New York Times.
JF: In that review of your show, Stephen Holden recommended that PBS tape it for Great Performances. Did they?
DD: Unfortunately no. I would still love to do something along those lines for PBS; do a documentary/performance show on Strayhorn's life. It wouldn't have to be a solo show. I would love to get a variety of artists like Elvis Costello, Cassandra Wilson, Audra McDonald and Dianne Reeves, and have them interpret his songs. I did get to do an episode of In The Life on PBS that profiled Billy Strayhorn, which included clips from my show. Another show called Life 360 featured me doing Strayhorn as well.
JF: Are you a regular correspondent for In The Life?
DD: I used to be. In The Life has gone through a lot of turnover and the gentleman who brought me in no longer is a producer for the show. I did a lot of corresponding at one point for them; I was doing a lot of their arts related stories, and I would love to do so again.
JF: I read an interesting quote in an American Theatre article on you that called you " ... Broadway's busiest understudy," stating that you "performed a half-dozen characters in Rent in the space of a single week." Is that the truth?
DD: It was at the time! I don't think it was quite six ... I did at least four or five parts in one week, though. One week I started out as Collins and ended as Angel; talk about schizophrenia! It would not have been unusual for me to play Collins on Tuesday, the Squeegee Man on Wednesday, Rodney's track on Thursday, go back to the Squeegee man on Friday and then end as Angel. Rent kept me really busy.
JF: Did you ever get the chance to take over a single character for an extended period?
DD: No, they never wanted to do that. Since I covered six people, I think they felt that I was too valuable as a swing to move me into a single role. They weren't going to find someone, immediately anyway, who could fill that many principle and ensemble characters and pretty much pull it off. That sounds so egotistical! (laughs) Please make it sound as humble as possible when you print this! There are dance swings, after all, who have to cover 20 roles and I can't imagine having to do that; I would fall in the pit!
JF: I think you have a right to be a touch proud, though; I can't imagine doing what you did. Especially having to perform both sides of "I'll Cover You" in a matter of days!
DD: That was a mind trip. In retrospect, it gave me such a respect for craft. It was amazing to look on stage, on the rare days I wasn't doing a part, and know what everybody was doing. I don't think I could do it again. (laughs) But it was hard. I felt like I wasn't being the best I could be since I was scattered all over the place and I never got to grow into a character. I finally had to leave because I wanted to create my own roles. I'm certainly grateful to have had that experience, but I wouldn't want to do it again.
JF: When were you in Rent?
DD: I was hired when the show was still Off-Broadway. I had auditioned for Rent when they were forming their final Off-Broadway cast, but there was such a long time between the audition and the call back that I had gone out of the country to do a job. After I got back, they contacted my agent about my working as an understudy, but I wanted to see it first. From the opening chord I knew I had to be a part of it.
JF: It also seems that you have the distinction of being in more shows with Audra McDonald than anybody. You were a substitute Mr. Snow in Carousel, played Paris in Marie Christine, and did the Dreamgirls concert. Were you in Ragtime to complete the set?
DD: I wasn't. Nor was I in Master Class. I met Audra when I took over for the last three and a half months of Carousel's run. They brought me in to replace Brian d'Arcy James, who was in the ensemble and was the understudy for Mr. Snow. Audra and I are like a pair of naughty siblings; we don't see each other often, but once we get together we playfully tease each other! (laughs)
JF: You won an Obie for Running Man, a show I know little about.
DD: Running Man was at a small Off-Broadway space called Here. It was written by Deirdre Murray and it's loosely based on the life of her brother. She and the people developing it saw me in Adam Guettel's Saturn Returns and called me in to audition and had me sing Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and "The Star Spangled Banner" for my audition pieces. I imagine they wanted to hear "Lush Life" because it's a hard song to sing interval-wise, and with a sense of emotionality.
JF: You're right; the lyrics just go so many places, as does the melody.
DD: Emotionally, musically and lyrically it's a tour-de-force; anybody who can get through it ... God bless ya!
JF: While we're on this tangent: did I hear correctly that "Lush Life" was written when Strayhorn was a teenager?
JF: That's amazing. The song sounds like you have to be in your fifties to even begin to comprehend it ...
DD: ... and drunk and depressed to boot. He wrote it before he started drinking. He lived a lush life, but only after he wrote the song.
Running Man didn't run very long, but it ran long enough to get a great review and get nominated for a Pulitzer. I got my Obie presented to me by Kathleen Chalfant, who was the big actor of note that year due to her performance in W;t. Deirdre won an Obie for her music as well.
JF: What's next on your plate?
DD: Mainly, at this time, I'm working on promoting the CD. I've been doing a lot of session work, working with composers, and doing concert work and presentations for a couple of work-in-progress musicals. I'm currently reading a script for a musical about Billy Strayhorn, which I'm very excited about.
JF: Do you have any concert work coming up?
DD: My CD Launch will be at Joe's Pub on June 8th. And I have concerts lining up in July and August, which I can't speak of yet ...
JF: So people should check your website, www.dariusdehaas.com, for details as they come?
JF: Well, I wish you the best of fates on your new CD and can't wait to hear you live at the party.