YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Rob Zellers remembers the moment he was inspired to write a musical about the late jazz composer Billy Strayhorn.
It was six years ago, while he was reading a biography about big-band great Duke Ellington. Zellers became fascinated by Ellington’s little-known collaborator, Strayhorn.
“I learned so much about Billy Strayhorn [in that book], and it was like, ‘Whoa!’,” Zellers says. “This is a great story.”
It was also one that had yet to be properly told – until now.
Zellers’ musical, “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For,” will get its world premiere Sept. 19, when it begins a three-week run at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
It tells the story of one of America’s greatest jazz composers, a Pittsburgh native who grew up dirt poor but would go on to write timeless tunes like “Take the A Train,” “Lush Life,” “Something to Live For” and “Day Dream.”
Zellers is a Boardman native and playwright who has been affiliated with the Pittsburgh Public for much of his career.
He is best-known for co-writing “The Chief,” the one-person play that depicts Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney.
Zellers also wrote “Mr. Wheeler’s,” which is set in a diner in Youngstown, and “Harry’s Friendly Service,” which takes place in a gas station in downtown Youngstown. Both plays were performed at Youngstown State University, with “Harry’s” premiering at the Pittsburgh Public.
While “The Chief” has become a staple of Pittsburgh and the Steelers fanbase, there is something even more special about “Strayhorn.”
The musical has already attracted attention in the theater world beyond Pittsburgh and seems poised for a long life.
Broadway star and Pittsburgh native Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots”) is one of the producers.
Zellers is filled with anticipation and excitement as opening day draws near.
“This one feels different,” he says of his newest work. “The stakes are higher. It’s an expensive show. Now, we gotta do it. I have a fair amount of anxiousness.”
Zellers has high praise for the creative crew and the support the Pittsburgh Public has thrown behind the production. The costumes, lighting, set design and music are excellent. The musical will also use projection to show photographs and set the scene and the tone.
And the cast, Zellers says, is “spectacular.”
After the auditions, he notes, every offer that was sent to actors – and creative team members – was accepted.
“People want to work on this story,” Zellers says.
The cast is led by Darius de Haas (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) in the title role.
J.D. Mollison (“Les Miserables”) plays Duke Ellington.
The characters include not just Strayhorn and Ellington but jazz singers Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.
Kent Gash, who co-wrote the musical, is the director. Jazz phenom Matthew Whitaker is the music director.
Zellers will be heading to New York in the coming days for a week of partial-cast rehearsals before the entire group heads to Pittsburgh for more rehearsals.
There is a lot to absorb for the cast, crew and musicians.
“It has a lot of moving parts,” Zellers says. “It’s a big, expensive show and everything is new.”
The musical tells the story of Strayhorn and uses the composer’s own songs for the score.
“Strayhorn’s songs were autobiographical, so it was a natural to use them to help tell the story,” Zellers says. It’s like Strayhorn wrote the songs for a musical about himself decades in advance, Zellers acknowledges.
Strayhorn grew up in a dirt-floor shack with his family in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. His collaboration with the great bandleader Duke Ellington brought him money and professional satisfaction, but not fame.
Strayhorn died in 1967 at age 51.
“Duke was in the spotlight, but Strayhorn, being a gay African American man in the 1940s and 1950s, was perfectly happy where he was and didn’t need to be in the spotlight,” Zellers says. “It explains how he remained so relatively unknown.”
In bringing the musical to the stage, each of the songs had to be arranged for each member of a nine-piece ensemble. Knowing where to insert each song to propel the storyline was a critical task, and Zellers worked with Gash to make sure it was done right.
“It took a lot of thought as to where to insert each song,” Zellers says.
It was a new endeavor for him, although he was able to draw on his early days for guidance.
“I had never written a musical before, but I was brought up going to them at The Youngstown Playhouse and I absorbed the art form,” he says.
One key to properly mounting the production was attracting Whitaker as music director and ensemble leader.
“He is a major element of the show,” Zellers says. “We were looking for a music director who could conduct the band onstage and also teach it to the orchestra members. Someone with a jazz background but who understands musical theater. Our producer came up with Matthew Whitaker.”
An internationally known jazz pianist, Whitaker is just 23 years old and has been blind since birth. He’ll be on stage with the ensemble during the show.
“To me, he’s worth at least half of the price of admission,” Zellers says. “He’s a young genius and the actors and orchestra members love him. He’s such a great spirit, so wise, so young, and fun. It’s been a blessing to work with him.”
While the show has yet to open, Zellers admits that the producers already are thinking about where to take it after it closes.
Plans are in the works to bring it to other cities in hopes of widening its audience and reaching the next level.
The Pittsburgh Public Theatre production will include 21 performances at The O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., downtown.
For show times and ticket information, go to PPT.org/Strayhorn or call 412 316 1600.