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Pittsburgh jazz great Billy Strayhorn gets his due in new musical

Darius de Haas
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Actor and singer Darius de Haas plays Billy Strayhorn in the new show.

“I want something to live for / Someone to make my life an adventurous dream,” goes Billy Strayhorn’s “Something To Live For.”

“Oh, what wouldn't I give for someone who'd take my life / And make it seem gay as they say it ought to be.”

Of all the changes the new musical “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” underwent from conception to its upcoming premiere, one of the most important was the move toward telling the famed jazz composer’s story through his own lyrics.

“Obviously, they could tell the story better than I could,” says Rob Zellers, the Pittsburgh-based playwright who conceived of the show and ultimately wrote its book with Broadway veteran Kent Gash.

Rob Zellers
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Rob Zellers began working on a show about Strayhorn years ago.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater production, which receives its first performance on Tuesday, Sept. 19, is a basically chronological telling of Strayhorn’s story. It moves from his early years, which the Westinghouse High School graduate spent mostly in Pittsburgh, to shortly before his untimely death in 1967, at age 51.

Strayhorn, played by Broadway performer Darius de Haas, is depicted in scenes with everyone from his lifelong collaborator Duke Ellington — whom he met here in 1938, after an Ellington performance at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center) — to his dear friend Lena Horne and Aaron Bridgers, the musician who was the love of Strayhorn’s life.

Showing the way are all those songs, including the title tune and such classics as “Lush Life” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and the dance numbers choreographed to them. The show is directed by Gash, with musical direction by Matt Whitaker and choreography by Dell Howlett.

The producers are Emmy-nominated lead producer Steven Tabakin along with another Pittsburgh legend: Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning actor, singer and recording star Billy Porter.

The nine-person cast is backed by a live, nine-piece orchestra. Gash, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, is also co-author and director of the off-Broadway musical “Langston in Harlem.”

Kent Gash
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Kent Gash wrote the show's book with Zellers and directs.

De Haas has credits on and off-Broadway and on television, including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and is a longtime interpreter of Strayhorn’s songs. J.D. Mollison plays Ellington, Charl Brown plays Aaron Bridgers, and Arielle Roberts doubles as Horne and another of Strayhorn’s famous collaborators, Billie Holiday.

De Haas notes that Strayhorn grew up in poverty and had minimal formal musical training, but he rose to the top of his profession despite suffering the prejudices faced by a Black man who was also openly gay decades before that became common.

“This was a man who had such a prodigious genius talent and was so driven and who culled this talent, really, the best way he could,” he said.

Zellers, formerly the Public’s longtime director of education, said the musical is rooted in his early exposure to jazz via his mother’s record collection. He became fascinated by Strayhorn years ago after reading about him in a biography of Ellington. Early versions of this show were written for a single performer portraying Strayhorn. But its scope grew as Zellers realized he couldn’t tell the story without depicting the composer’s interactions with other key players.

Zellers said there are many levels to the drama, from stresses over Strayhorn’s sexuality and tensions with Ellington over songwriting credits to his tendency to put music first in his personal life and even his later involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Ultimately, Zellers said, it all comes out in the music — hope, joy, melancholy, and yearning for the “Lush Life” that Strayhorn, who wrote that tune as a precocious teenager, dreamed of and in many ways attained.

“There’s a lot to learn from the lyrics of these songs,” Zellers said.

More information on “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: