When Housewife Turns Record Mogul: Baby It’s You

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Have you ever heard of Florence Greenberg? The Passaic housewife discovered The Shirelles at her daughter’s house and became a record mogul in New York City in the sixties. Really, Passaic should dedicate a street or something to her. And all New Jerseyans can feel proud. She founded Scepter records, and among the hits she launched were “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Duke of Earl,” “He’s So Fine,” “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Soldier Boy.” Greenberg also had an interracial affair with producer and songwriter Luther Dixon. That’s an inspiring true story.

“Baby It’s You,” which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway last week, tells her story, and while it is underwritten, and the script won’t earn prizes for originality, the fab selection of 60’s music, belted by top-notch performers accompanied by a kickin’ band, is a lot of fun (they’re already planning to release the cast recording this spring). And the period costumes are a treat. There was not one dress onstage I wouldn’t wear (costumes by Lizz Wolf).

It’s a jukebox musical, and while not the best of its kind, it is an entertaining night out with the family. I went with mine—my brother and his wife and their two children, my mother, and my other brother. Here was the breakdown: the kids loved it. I danced during the encore of “Shout” with my tween niece and my teenage nephew wasn’t bored. My mother said “this is my era.” My sister-in-law enjoyed it too. My two brothers — one a Springsteen fanatic, the other a lawyer and regular theatergoer — had reservations. One discovered the next day that the story fudges on a lot of details (I call it dramatic license, he calls it lying). The other just didn’t feel drawn in.

You’ll enjoy it more if you think of it of it less as a musical play than a concert with some dialogue. The audience was on board from the top—singing along with “Book of Love” and cheering when the narrator, radio DJ Jock (charismatic and talented Geno Henderson), announces that the Shirelles “were from Passaic, New Jersey.” The cast plays right to the audience, coming to the edge of the stage, looking at you. There’s no pit. The band is on stage and so much of the set is taken up with them that much of the rest of the scenery is presented with pictures on hanging screens. Sometimes this is effective—the 50s-era Passaic kitchen in particular—but the overall effect was a little skimpy. Maybe the producers spent all the money on the rights to the songs.

At first, the exaggerated qualities of the characters are fun. When Florence’s husband Stanley (Brandon Uranowitz) tells his wife “only a paycheck counts as a job” the audience hissed. Eventually the simplicity grows tiresome (in real life, it was all more complex; Bernie supported his wife at first and gave her money to start her company). The four women playing the Shirelles (Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr Knighton, Christina Sajous) are all wonderful singers, but we don’t learn enough about them to care how they evolve. That would be all right, since it’s really Flo’s story, but the girls take up a lot of stage time.

But in the end, for all its flaws, the show drove everyone to wiki Greenberg and the Shirelles, and that is saying something. Who knew that Burt Bacharach was one of her finds? I didn’t (he wrote the title song). It’s a nice thing to know, and I’m glad to know Flo’s story, too. She was awarded a posthumous Grammy in 2010.

The show was authored by Floyd Mutrux (who also directs) and Colin Escott. This company is dedicated, according to the program, to bringing “a series of innovative stage musicals about the people who made trhe music that changed the culture of our country.” They are workshopping a number of other musicals, including The Alan Freed Show. While I’m not so sure their work is innovative, it’s eminently worthwhile. As Flo herself might say, “You could do worse.”

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9 COMMENTS

  1. It’s unfortunate that “Baby It’s You” has received lukewarm reviews. The original songs are wonderful, and the intrigues and ripoffs of the record business of the 1950s and 60s are fertile ground for examination; sad that the tradition continues today as the show is enmeshed in lawsuits by the artists. It was a time of songwriters producing marvelous work for singers to deliver. Many great groups were forgotten because their versions were too gritty for the pop charts.

    One of their biggest hits of the Shirelles, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” originated with the great 50s R&B group, the “5” Royales and its guitarist Lowman Pauling. The music of the “5” Royales was covered Ray Charles, Mick Jagger and James Brown. On my Rockaeology blog at https://bit.ly/fxSYOl is the story of how Pauling’s pioneering use of intentional feedback and echo influenced guitarists like Eric Clapton.

  2. “Greenberg also had an interracial affair with producer and songwriter Luther Dixon. That’s an inspiring true story.”

    Wait, what? It’s inspiring that she had an affair?

  3. Saying Florence Greenberg “launched” so many hits is, to say the least, somewhat misleading. “She headed up a record label not famous for reliably prompt payment to its artists or even for accurate royalties accounting” might be a better way of putting it, according to people I know who were in the music industry.

    I did not know that about ‘Dedicated to the one I love,” jensenlee, thank you. On the other hand, I did know that the Shirelles recorded a song called “Putty (In Your Hands” which later was covered by, of all groups, the Yardburds on their first US album.

    I also doubt very much that Florence Greenberg had anything to do with “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. For one thing, according to my collection of books on group harmony music, it came out on Laurie Records (Dion and the Belmonts’ original label), not on Greenberg’s Scepter. And I knew DJ Bill “Jocko” Henderson slightly during the mid-60’s, he used to sometimes come to our fraternity parties (he always had to leave early to go to work on WADO); he definitely had nothing to do with Scepter Records, so using an imitat0r of him in the show (any possible deal with his estate or even him if he’s still alive, which I doubt. notwithstanding) is totally inaccurate. Burt Bacharach was also very active as a songwriter, both with and without Hal David, well before the heyday of Scepter Records and Dionne Warwicke(e)’s recordings of some of his output. Is it really ever too much to expect some commitment to factual accuracy from Baristanet’s crack reportorial staff? Probably, it always seems.

    The Shirelles were enormously popular during the day, of course. My own first rock concert was, as best I recall, the Shirelles at the Passaic Armory. For anyone interested in Alan Freed, the movie “American Hot Wax” is supposedly about the “last” concert he ever hosted in Brooklyn, although its commitment to the true story is very shaky. It’s also notable for being the first screen appearance of both Fran Drescher and a big-jawed kid named Jay Leno.

  4. You’re right, that sentence was overcompressed; I did not mean to imply bu writing “he was one of her finds” that she discovered Bacharach for the world, merely that she discovered him for her label (that’s clear in the play). The job of a critic is not to go over each historical fact in the play (nor to argue the play’s givens)– it’s to report on whether or not a show works as entertainment. The show does not claim to be a documentary. There’s a long tradition in drama of fudging historical facts to tell a particular story, from Medea to Richard III to the Cole Porter Story. The reason “Baby, It’s You” has gotten lukewarm reviews (from me as well) is not because of the factual inventions, but because it doesn’t wholly work as entertainment. My review is from the perspective of a theatre critic, not that of a rock historian. I encourage you to see the show and review it yourself (and investigate those doubts you raise), for those who are interested in it from that perspective.

  5. Florence’s husband’s name was Bernie (well played by Barry Pearl). Stanley was the name of Florence’s blind son played by Brandon Uranowitz, who demonstrated his versatility juggling a variety of roles impressively. Loved his voice! As well as the other players…!

    You got the actor’s correct name and part but mixed up the roles.
    Accuracy is always a good thing in journalism, no?

  6. Ms. Orel, if you’re a “theater critic” then I’m the shade of Walter Kerr.

    But even someone who writes for Baristanet should make some passing effort to also familiarize herself with the facts behind the docudrama (or whatever else you wish to call it) you reviewed above. If only so as not to make boobish assertions as you do above. Oldies but goodies are a very serious matter to some of us.

  7. Pleased to meet the shade of Walter Kerr; I enjoy your book. I hope you will be as passionately interested in my other reviews for Baristanet, and care about theatre as I do.

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