Honey for the bees

STC takes a gamble and puts together an original revue, based on the life and times of singer Patti Austin

Patti Austin, who plays Patti Austin in a play about the life of Patti Austin.

Patti Austin, who plays Patti Austin in a play about the life of Patti Austin.

The new show at the Sacramento Theatre Company, On the Way to Love, is basically the story of singer Patti Austin’s life, which is larger than life.

Consider some of the details, from which the show draws its narrative arc:

• Going onstage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem at age 4, Austin was present in nightclubs for years afterwards—but with her parents at her side, very often along with one of her godparents, the bandleader, arranger, producer and record company artists-and-repertoire man Quincy Jones. “There were no restrictions,” she recalls, “and in a way it was a great thing, because we saw everything that life had to offer. But we always saw it under the auspices of my parents’ eyes. So we’d be sitting on the bus, with our parents and Quincy, and there’d be some guy who would be smoking reefer on the back of the bus. And I’d say, ‘What’s reefer?’ “

• She made subsequent TV appearances as a child. “I never told my friends that I was in show business,” Austin says. “I had friends in school when I was 5 years old that used to watch me on TV every Sunday, and I’d sit next to them in school on Monday, and they would never put it together. In those days—and we’re talking 1955—some people weren’t tremendously sophisticated about these things. I guess it was impossible to think that you could see someone on TV one day and sit next to them in class the next day.

• Austin caught a lot of interesting acts in those childhood nightclub visits. “I saw Moms Mabley, Lenny Bruce, Pigmeat Markham, Redd Foxx and others,” she remembers. “Redd did one of the funniest bits, in that dry style with a cigarette. We went to the Apollo one night, and they announced Redd, saying ‘Live on television—Redd Foxx!’ Well, the whole audience gasped. And the curtain rose. And there was Redd, standing on top of a console TV! That was the joke!” [A long laugh follows.]

• And Austin heard a vast tapestry of music, all kinds, as a child. “My father was a jazz trombonist,” she explains, adding that he worked with lots and lots of people when she was young. “Everyone knew him. … [He] listened to everything from Stravinsky to Patsy Cline to Latin Jazz to Beethoven, John Philip Sousa, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Stan Kenton, to you-name-it on the home music system.”

Austin’s additional memories are also grist for On the Way to Love.

• As a child, she tried out for The Mickey Mouse Club. “And they loved me,” she says. But Walt Disney didn’t go along; the initial Mouseketeers were all white. “Unfortunately, although the Mouse is black, the Mouseketeers could not be.” At least not in 1950s America.

• Austin came from a showbiz background, but she tried to lead as normal a life as was possible. “I grew up on Long Island,” she explains, “flowing in and out of this civilian-style show business, leading a rather Scarlet Pimpernel-ish childhood. My friends didn’t know I was in show business until I was 16. The rest of the time, I never talked about it, because I wanted people to accept me for me, not based on whether I had a hit record or was highly visible or all that nonsense.”

• Austin’s heritage was a multicultural tapestry. “My mother’s mother was Swedish, and her father was from Barbados,” she says. “And my father’s mother was [from the] Blackfoot [tribe] and Irish, and his father was African-American from Bluefield, West Virginia. When my grandmothers came for dinner when I was a child, it was the wildest thing. All kinds of accents and everything flying. And I just thought that was the way everybody lived, because that was my world.”

• And Austin’s parents were not the Rockefellers. “My parents were tremendously poor,” she says, “but I never realized it, because they were so creative with their poverty. They didn’t have money to go to restaurants. So when I was doing a TV show [as a child] in New York for about two years, and we were living in Bayshore, Long Island, and we would drive into the city, my mom and dad would cook food and put it in the trunk of the car. And Quincy [Jones] would always tease them about this, because we’d go to their house, and we’d open up the trunk of the car, and the trunk would be like a catering service. [Quincy] would go, ‘What in the hell is this, and give me some! Where’s my plate?’

“We would go to Central Park, and we would have a picnic every day,” Austin continues. “And it was just fantastic. I was a kid, and I didn’t know that it was because my parents couldn’t afford a restaurant. I assumed this was what you would do because it was cool. And I watched my parents work their way up. My dad left the entertainment business, and soon both my parents were working at a mental institution in Babylon, Long Island. They started out as attendants, packing people on ice and putting people in straightjackets. And 25 years later, they were both psychotherapists. So I also have that as a backdrop in my life—a life of psychotherapy and mental institutions [laughs]. While dabbling in the arts with my beloved godmother Dinah Washington.”

Along the way, Patti Austin branched out into a substantial career in pop music—singing jingles for a while, and later recording hits over several decades on her own and in partnership with James Ingram and others.

Austin holds the reputation of being a “singer’s singer.” In addition to pop music, Austin’s done an Ella Fitzgerald tribute with the WDR Symphony of Germany (a group that, on its own, comes to Sacramento on February 16), which is evolving into further orchestral gigs for Austin, and perhaps a TV special.

Austin’s new show at the Sacramento Theatre Company, On the Way to Love, grew out of a meeting with Peggy Shannon, the current artistic director of STC, about 10 years ago. At the time, they were working on a radio play of Shakespeare’s Pericles, with an all-black cast, for National Public Radio.

“We just hit it off,” Shannon recalls. “And, over the years, we have kept talking about doing a show about Patti’s life. She’s an enormously talented singer.”

Shannon always tries to work a show that includes music into STC’s calendar. Past STC seasons have featured shows based on country singer Patsy Cline, German art songs from the 19th century by Franz Schubert, and blues standards from the 1930s and 1940s.

Unlike those revues, On the Way to Love features the vocal artist who is the focus of the show as its primary character. But Shannon promises that the show will be more than a concert souvenir. “Patti’s life is so dramatic,” she explains. “Normally, [in the theater] you’re working with an actor and trying to get it authentic. My challenge in this show is to tell Patti’s stories and dramatize them so that it’s not one long monologue with songs—because that’s a concert.”

“We never wanted a piece that was a play in which someone could hop in and play Patti,” Shannon adds.

On the Way to Love is intended to move on to one or two regional theaters and, ultimately, Broadway, says Shannon. “We are in conversation with several commercial producers [in New York] who are quite interested. This stage [at the Sacramento Theatre Company] is giving birth. And after this birth, we try to finesse it and make it larger, tighter. And we would do that at some other regional theaters before going to New York.”

Ultimately, On the Way to Love presents an opportunity, for both star and director, to stretch the narrative into something more than a skein of musical numbers linked together by dialogue. “Patti is not just a singer, she is also a comedienne,” Shannon explains. “She talks about women’s issues"—up to and including menopause. As of early January, the show included a bit about that particular change of life, with satirical lyrics set to the old Moody Blues hit, “Nights in White Satin.”

“Patti is an American success story,” Shannon sums up, “in that there are so many things where most people would have said, ‘You can’t do that.’ But she was precocious and made it happen. And that’s very American. I like it a lot.”

Paul Conley of Capital Public Radio contributed interview material to this story.