Theater for the New City & Crystal Field, Executive Director
“Betty & The Belrays”
“Bring it On” meets “Dreamgirls” in the girl-group musical, “Betty and the Belrays” by William Electric Black aka Ian Ellis James, which will be presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 17. The piece tells the story of three white female singers from Detroit who struggle to change a racially divided society by singing for a black record label. Book and lyrics are by William Electric Black. Music is by Black, Valerie Ghent (arranger/keyboards for Ashford & Simpson) and Gary Schreiner. The choreography is by Jeremy Lardieri. Director is Mr. Black. aged ten and up.
Girl groups are now an iconic part of the history of the recording industry in America. In a brief, shining period between the payola scandal and the British invasion, American girl groups swamped the charts with songs that are now classic: mostly sweet harmonies on sentimental themes, with classic melody constructions and simplistic love lyrics. Partially because of the concern that America’s teens would like the songs better if they didn’t know the singers’ color, many girl groups were anonymous except for their recordings. Almost all of them were black, but that was not known to many fans at the time. “Betty & The Belrays,” asks, “what would have happened if a white girl group had actually tried to recapitulate the careers of these black groups?” If you love the songs of The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Shirelles and The Ronettes, you’ll find heaven in this production, whose music recaptures the innovation and fresh, optimistic buoyancy that ruled the AM airwaves in the Kennedy era. It features a live onstage Motown-style band led by Gary Schreiner, authentic ’60s choreography, and a cast of fourteen. It is recommended for audiences aged ten and up.
The musical is a fable that shows how integral this music was to the Civil Rights Movement. The setting of the play–1963 Detroit–is where the Movement and Motown found musical harmony. Martin Luther King, you may remember, led Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, America’s largest civil rights demonstration at the time, on June 23, 1963. His address to the crowd there was an early version of the “I Have a Dream” speech he offered two months later at the March on Washington. Detroit was also the place where in 1959, Berry Gordy founded Motown Records in three adjoining row houses (before moving it to L.A. in 1967). One Motown group that broke big in 1963 was Martha & The Vandellas. Their “Dancing in the Streets” (1964) is believed by many to be actually about the protest.