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Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death was a blazingly, uncompromisingly original piece of musical theater
Last Edit: dreambaby 11:02 pm EDT 09/22/21
Posted by: dreambaby 10:57 pm EDT 09/22/21
In reply to: Melvin Van Peebles has died. - kieran 06:04 pm EDT 09/22/21

I bought myself a ticket to see Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death for a Wednesday matinee with a two-fer early in the summer I'd turn 14. The Wednesday I showed up with my ticket I discovered it was for a performance that had already happened. The ticket-taker directed me to appeal to the box office staff, who promptly replaced it with a seat in the center orchestra around the 3rd row.

I'd already seen the 15 minutes or so of it that had gotten included in the Tony Awards show weeks earlier, alongside numbers featuring Ruby Keeler and the cast of No, No Nanette.

The show was a hot theatrical blast of pain and fury. I purchased the two-disc original cast album at Colony Music before I left New York that summer to head back home in the Deep South. I played it over, and over, and over. The show and the album were formative influences in my youth.

I came to feel that the show was an incredible reimagining of what a Broadway musical could be. I was surprised when I was younger that it seemed to have little to no impact on the musical theater that came after it.

It astonishes me now to think that it ran for 325 performances. I can't imagine it made a profit, and assume it ran with some support from the theater owners, during the leaner early 70's years on Broadway. That same '71/'72 season that Ain't Supposed to Die... opened in October, Van Peebles had a second, very different musical open the following May, Don't Play Us Cheap, a far lighter concoction that also ran several months, with some critical approval.

Several years later, in the summer of 1981, I was working for an off-off-Broadway theater company and tried presenting a low-rent film series on off-nights to bring in a few dollars toward the theater rental. One film we booked was Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I went myself to the address where I could pick up the film reels in person, which turned out to be Van Peebles' apartment, between 5th and 6th Avenues around 43rd or 44th Streets. When I rang the door bell, I was shocked that it was himself who answered it, with Glenda Jackson clearly visible just behind him seated inside. She would have recently completed the run of "Rose."

The characters and performances in Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death have very much stayed with me all of these years, which have not served to soften the edges or mellow the contours of it. It remains brutally contemporary in many ways. I find it remarkable now that Melvin Van Peebles had the opportunity and fire to unleash his creativity on Broadway, for a time.
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