The whole world is a stage And everybody’s playing a part
The stage is set, the curtain goes up
The scene is a broken heart
— The Fantastic Four, ‘The Whole World Is A Stage’
LOS ANGELES — Obie-winning playwright Lee Breuer was on a plane killing time with the inflight movie when inspiration struck and he composed ‘Sister Suzie Cinema’, a poem exploring the way films shape our conception of R*O*M*A*N*C*E.
To convey the proper mood of loopy adolescence required to portray his tongue-in-cheek visions of “Natalie of the Woods, Veronica of the Lakes, Sweet Succulent Sally of the Fields,” Breuer (an old-line ’50s greaser who remembers cruising L.A. drive-ins to the sounds of the Flamingos’ ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’) chose to render his paean to the silver screen in the form of a “doo-wop opera,” to be performed a cappella.
A cappella, for those who are not hep, means without music, i.e. without instrumental accompaniment. In rock and roll terms, it refers to music of the harmony vocal groups who flourished (mostly) in the Tri-State area (mainly) during the ’50s and early ’60s. These groups represent “do-wop,” so named for their practice of reducing background vocals to nonsense syllables (c.f. the aforementioned Flamingos tune or the Del-Vikings’ ‘Come Go With Me’), in its purest form dispensing with the need for instruments and creating an authentic urban folk music that took advantage of the natural resonance provided by the city’s subway stations and tenement halls and could therefore be performed by just about anyone, anytime. End of scholarly digression.
Breuer contacted musician/record producer Bob Telson, who undertook the formidable task of setting Breuer’s poem to music. Taking advantage of the poem’s reliance on rhythms and repetition, Telson isolated certain sections and repeated them at length, chopping and channeling the images into a half-dozen songs, seaming them together with several soliloquies, a device common to the doo-wop tradition, e.g. the Velvetones’ ‘Glory of Love’.
At this point, the two men began looking around for people to play and sing the roles of the group of kids who are “sitting in the back row of the late show, playing with their yo-yo’s,” watching the on-screen images unfold. A problem: Where do you find a cappella singers in 1980?
A black country duo cutting demos at Telson’s studio overheard his dilemma and recommended Breuer get in touch with Stan Krause, a long-time a cappella/doo-wop aficionado-producer-collector-retailer who manages 14 Karat Soul, a five-man a cappella group from East Orange, New Jersey. Breuer and Telson made the trek to the next meeting of the Jersey-based U.G.H.A. (United in Group Harmony Association), heard the group perform — and their problem was solved. After a few weeks of rehearsals, the play opened off-Broadway in New York to rave reviews. That was in June. In August, Mabou Mines (Breuer’s theater company) got the money from film producer Ed Pressman to bring the property to L.A., where it ran for two weeks at the Odyssey Theater to similar raves.
Sister Suzie Cinema itself is brief (thirty minutes) and simply staged (a bloc of cinema seats and a giant stepladder). The narrator, an uptown hipster type, strolls in, a gorgeous girl on each arm, and sits in the first row of the audience at stage right. The five group members (Reginald Brisbon, Russell Fox II, Bobby Wilson, David Thurman and Glenny T.) dressed in red patent leather shoes and white jumpsuits reminiscent of Exxon attendants on Alpha Centauri, take their places in the back row of the cinema seats and softly begin to sing “Sis-ter Su-zie Cin-e-ma…” in the course of the performance all five take lead vocal chores, climbing up and down the ladder and over the seats, tossing popcorn into the audience, and occasionally working the proscenium, capped by David Thurman’s collapse in paroxysms of agony/devotion as he swears to “still be there when the popcorn is gone.”
That’s about it for dramatics; it’s the sheer energy of the play that overwhelms. That and the singing (done without mikes, no less), which is nothing short of phenomenal. The group ranges from the stately delicate title tune to the gospel-styled ‘(Carry Me Back To) Prime Time’ to the eerie ‘Night Flight’. No standouts, all stars. As if further proof were needed, after a short intermission, 14 Karat Soul returns to perform a capsule (half-hour) history of the vocal group idiom. Covering gospel (‘People Get Ready’), ’40s pop (‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’), and ’50s rock hits (’16 Candles’), the highlights included a spacy ‘The Sun’ (the Del-Vikings hit), spotlighting bass boss Reggie Brisbon’s rich bottom register; an ethereal ‘Blue Velvet’, setting Russell Fox’s vibrato-laden lead against some stunning passing-tone contrapuntal harmonies from the group; and an exuberant ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, featuring David Thurman’s falsetto, a marvel of stratospheric clarity.
Few of these vintage titles and group name-checks could mean much to readers whose image of a “vocal group” is either Sha-Na-Na or the Manhattan Transfer. Nevertheless, what it comes down to is this: There is no musical instrument more expressive than the human voice. Innocence, joy, humor and heartbreak are emotions as timeless as Shakespeare (just ask the Fantastic Four). So is great style, which is why Lee Breuer remembers the Flamingos, a cappella, doo-wop, and all the rest. And great style is what 14 Karat Soul has in abundance. Style and emotion — baby, that is rock and roll.
© Don Waller, New York Rocker, 14 January 1980