Broadway: AIN’T SUPPOSED TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH (New Production of the 1971 Musical)

Post image for Broadway: AIN’T SUPPOSED TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH (New Production of the 1971 Musical)

by Gregory Bernard on May 22, 2021

in Theater-New York

The electrifying and seminal musical play Melvin Van Peebles’ Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death will return to Broadway for the very first time since its 1971 premiere production. Directed by Kenny LeonAin’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death will open on Broadway in 2022. Filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s eldest son and longtime collaborator, will serve as Creative Producer.

On October 20, 1971, the production perfectly captured the Van Peebles zeitgeist as it stunned its first Broadway audiences with its heightened, no-holds-barred depiction – equal parts thrilling and intense – of the largely unseen corridors of urban life. Broadway – and popular music – would never be the same. After ten previews, the Off-Broadway production, directed by Gilbert Moses, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, then transferred to the Ambassador, for a total run of 325 performances. The cast included Bill Duke, Albert Hall, Garrett Morris and Beatrice Winde. Ossie Davis and Phylicia Rashad joined the cast in 1972.

Featuring a book and score by Mr. Van Peebles, the show, which was recorded on 2 LPs (see poster) blends early hip hop and spoken word, jazz and blues, humor and pain to offer a raucous celebration of – and clear-eyed look at – America. In a poor Black neighborhood, nameless characters rail against a general malaise called “the Man.” Each one begins his or her musical rant with the repetition of one or two signature phrases. They sing of their frustrations, fears, regrets and pain. The drama stems from the characters’ words about their daily lives. Act I follows a “normal” day in the ghetto, but Act II graphically depicts a particularly violent day, in which looting and several brutal killings occur. The characters include a blind beggar, a Malcolm X lieutenant, a pimp, prostitutes, a drag queen, a lesbian, looters, lovers, junkies, a wino, a bag lady, corrupt cops, a disgruntled postal worker, sweatshop workers, and a death row prisoner. The work begins with the “Star Spangled Banner” and ends with the accusatory “Put a Curse on You.”

“The songs on stage were mirroring the incidents that were happening in the streets,” said Van Peebles.

Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death went on to earn seven 1972 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Given an unprecedented (and unrepeated) more-than nine-minute performance slot on that year’s Tony Awards telecast, the original cast delivered what Time Out New York later called, “The most shocking performance in the history of the Tonys.” Its now-iconic score, steeped in funk, soul, jazz, and blues, is widely considered to have been a groundbreaking precursor to rap and hip-hop.

Mr. Van Peebles’s eldest son and closest collaborator for the past 50 years, the actor/director/producer/writer Mario Van Peebles, said of the project, “Love what you do for a living, love and enjoy the people you do it with, and love what the work says. If you get these three career chakras to line up, you’re rich beyond the economics. Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is a perfect example of that artistic alignment. For years, people have said Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death was my father’s crowning achievement and ahead of its time and would ask when it would come back to Broadway. It is more relevant than ever, and America is finally ready for it.”

Additional production details, including the complete cast and additional creative team, will be announced at a later date.

A picture containing person, person, wearing, posing  Description automatically generatedMelvin Van Peebles

A person in a suit  Description automatically generated with medium confidence
Mario Van Peebles

A person in a suit  Description automatically generated with low confidenceKenny Leon

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