That Old Songwriting Magic
Pianist Emma Kelly had nothing to do with the murder of bad boy Danny Hansford, but as a well-known figure in the quirky city of Savannah, Georgia, she's included in the best-selling book about the killing. John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as much about the cast of unusual characters the author met while researching the book as it is about the murder trial itself, and Kelly appears during a scene at Sweet Georgia Brown's, a gathering place for a gaggle of city residents, where she plays and sings classic pop songs.
A teetotaling Baptist in her eighties, Kelly still plays country clubs, conventions, churches -- just about anywhere there's a demand for her repertoire, which includes songs written by the late Johnny Mercer, whom she considered a mentor. Mercer, a Savannah native known for standards such as "Jeepers Creepers" and "Hooray For Hollywood," heard that Kelly knew all of his songs and once called her to quiz her on some lesser-knowns in his catalog of more than 1000 tunes.
Berendt recounts the encounter in Midnight, but it isn't the only time he mentions Mercer. The composer's great-grandfather built the stately house in which eccentric antiques dealer Jim Williams killed his friend Hansford. Williams claimed that he shot Hansford in self-defense, and his legal battle is outlined in Midnight, which was turned into a feature film by director Clint Eastwood.
Mercer tunes were a natural for the movie's soundtrack, but in the mind of Jack Wrangler, music by Mercer accompanied scenes in the book long before the movie was released. So vivid was the musical connection for Wrangler, an actor and producer of musical theater and concerts, that he was compelled to conceive Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: The Concert.
Berendt approved wholeheartedly of the project, in which topnotch jazz musicians play Mercer tunes while scenes from the book are read aloud by one male and one female narrator. The idea of a dramatic jazz concert is new, but the concept had been kicking around in Wrangler's head since his days as a theater major at Northwestern University.
"We experimented with all kinds of theater," he recalls, "and there was an exercise where you would imagine what you would hear musically underneath the dialogue to get an idea how to interpret a script. That idea stayed in my mind all of these years, and when I read the book these songs were in my mind."
While reading a passage in Midnight in which the thuggish Hansford roughs up his girlfriend, Wrangler heard Mercer's "Blues in the Night." And the account of Williams hiring a voodoo priestess named Minerva to place a curse on a district attorney brought to mind "That Old Black Magic."
For the show, says Wrangler, "the idea was to be able to tell the whole story in one evening. Johnny Mercer wrote 1400 songs during his lifetime, so there's a song for every occasion."
Wrangler should know. He's married to Margaret Whiting, whose father, Richard Whiting, was a Mercer collaborator. Mercer and Whiting cowrote "Hooray For Hollywood" and "Too Marvelous For Words," among other notable tunes. Whiting died when Margaret, who would later become a recording artist, was just eight years old, and Mercer acted as both surrogate father and musical influence to her throughout his life.
Margaret scored hits with several of her mentor's songs, including "That Old Black Magic," which she sings in the Midnight show. Also appearing in the show are Kelly and the Lady Chablis, the female impersonator who played herself in the movie. Berendt served as one of the narrators when the show debuted in New York City in 1996, and on the current tour, Wrangler shares reading duties with other cast members.
"The music and the book so complement one another, and the music lets the story breathe," offers Wrangler. "You sit in the audience and let your imagination wander, and the music takes you through the story and helps you to relive it."
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