Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 25 / 22 June 2017
 

Songs in the key of Stevie Wonder

Theatre

Darius de Haas to sing the Wonder songbook


Darius de Haas.
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Darius de Haas had just come from rehearsal when I reached him by phone. He was reprising his role in William Finn's Songs of Innocence and Experience, a new song cycle by the openly gay composer of Falsettoland which inaugurated Williams College's new performing arts center and was being remounted at Merkin Concert Hall. Now the busy performer was looking forward to packing up the dog, picking up his partner, and heading for their weekend place in Pennsylvania.

A dynamic artist whose repertoire ranges from jazz to pop to art song to musical theater to the American Songbook, de Haas has performed on Broadway including Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carousel, Rent, Marie Christine and Dreamgirls (the concert version), and on recordings including his solo CD, Day Dreams: Variations on Strayhorn. On Sunday, November 20, Bay Area Cabaret is presenting his acclaimed show Stevie Wonder Songbook at Marine's Memorial Theatre in SF.

De Haas was happy to offer a chronicle of his musical roots. His father, bassist Eddie de Haas, was sideman to such artists as Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Blossom Dearie. Eddie met and married Geraldine Bey in the early 1960s while she was part of her brother's trio, Andy and the Bey Sisters. In the mid-1970s, Geraldine produced several annual outdoor concert tributes to Duke Ellington, the precursors to the now-renowned Chicago Jazz Festival. Darius, born in 1968, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he and his older sister Aisha sang in school choirs. Darius went on to study drama and moved to New York to continue his career. His out gay uncle, jazz vocalist Andy Bey (who is also openly HIV-positive), has long served as a role model.

It was while performing in Marie Christine with Audra MacDonald that de Haas developed a "hankering to do more concerts." Feeling that Billy Strayhorn's oeuvre was underappreciated by contemporary audiences, de Haas worked on the arrangements with musical director Deirdre Rodman, to bring his own sensibility to the work of the gay African American composer inextricably associated with Duke Ellington. Despite the praise heaped on the resulting recording, de Haas reflects that he no longer performs the material exactly the same way. Yearning to do things differently, to keep growing, is an experience all true artists share, he explained.

De Haas acknowledged that even now, as an out gay performer who's played a variety of roles, he still encounters directors who take pause casting him as a straight leading man. Suggesting that sometimes it's even gay casting directors who ignorantly discriminate, he refuses to hide, even if he doesn't always talk about his sexuality. His attitude is: "I do what I do, so get with the program, and let's move on." He also emphasized that he, along with other black actors, "have to fight for everything we get." He graciously acknowledges his debt to pioneering precursors Strayhorn, Bayard Rustin, and James Baldwin.

Passion fruit

As a child of the 1970s, de Haas would often steal into his sister's bedroom to listen to Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life, Music of My Mind, and Fulfillingness' First Finale. "Stevie Wonder is like breathing, he's the soundtrack of my growing up," de Haas enthused. "I have to have his music in my life, just as I do Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, and Billy Joel." Describing Wonder's extraordinary body of work, de Haas declares, "His music is hard. It requires great energy and stamina. He sings with such urgency and passion of the world's joys, ills, the sorrows of love. These songs were written in the post-Vietnam era, and I think it's appropriate to be singing them now, with this government and these hurricanes."

He's quick to add, "I don't think I sound like Stevie Wonder. I want to make his material my own." He's interested in reinvestigating the lesser-known works, which he identifies as "rangy musically," and makes the case for including Wonder in the Great American Songbook not by impersonating Wonder's style, but by demonstrating that his songs stand on their own regardless of who performs them. When de Haas developed the concert for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series in 2004, "I thought it was a one-off, but people ask for it over and over."

Originally presented with piano/keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and two backup vocalists, de Haas is excited about performing the show "pared down to the bare bones," in an intimate setting with only himself and a piano. Seeing himself as following in the footsteps of the contemporary composers' songbooks recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn in the 1950s, de Haas imagines someday recording his Wonder material. This young artist, intelligent, informed and passionately committed to performing the music he believes in, is determined to realize his dreams.

Tickets ($45): (415) 392-4400 or BayAreaCabaret.org.






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