Sweet Emotions: Why the Original Broadway Hunnies Returned to Jelly's Last Jam at Encores! | Playbill

Encores! News Sweet Emotions: Why the Original Broadway Hunnies Returned to Jelly's Last Jam at Encores!

Thirty-two years on, Allison M. Williams, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs are still shepherding Jelly Roll Morton to the afterlife.

Allison M. Williams, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs in Jelly's Last Jam Joan Marcus

Life never repeats, but sometimes it rhymes.

Now back on the boards thanks to New York City Center Encores!, it has been 32 years since Jelly's Last Jam first tapped its way to Broadway, changing the lives of all involved in immeasurable and innumerable ways. A syncopated bio-musical chronicling the life of acclaimed jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, the musical unfurls somewhere between heaven and hell on the eve of Morton's death. 

As he dips and dives through the aftershocks of his own life choices, Morton meets The Chimney Man (who is somewhere between a god, a devil, and the afterlife's night guard) and his enchanting trio of Hunnies, whose hypnotic hoofing frames Morton's journey to absolution with the distinct tinge of the Grecian fates. 

In an unusual move for the Encores! series (and a manifested twist of fate), the original three Hunnies, Allison M. Williams, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, have returned to their roles they originated in the 1992 Broadway production. 

"We weren't approached, we approached!" Duncan-Gibbs laughs, a warm throaty sound that immediately sends cascades of chuckles through Williams and Lofgren. "When I saw that they were doing Jelly, I knew it would be incredible to do it again, and that it would really be magical if we all came back together," she says.  Duncan-Gibbs knew the spiritual effect of their trio returning to the piece could be irresistible. "The idea of other people doing our walk, trying to do what we did... I knew I didn't want to sit in the audience to watch somebody else do what we had created."

All three women were bonafide Broadway veterans prior to the original Broadway production, having understudied and replaced in Broadway productions of CatsSweet Charity, The Wizand Dreamgirls, but Jelly's Last Jam had marked the first time any of the trio had wholly originated a principal track on Broadway. To come back to the material was remarkably emotional.

"Just hearing the music again overwhelmed me," Williams confesses, her doe eyes sparkling with glee. "It really was like a reunion with myself."

For Lofgren, the emotionally charged experience of returning to the piece was equalled by the artistic challenge it presented.

"I didn't want to be compared to who I was," Lofgren explains. "Our choreographer, Edgar Godineaux, encouraged me to go to Lincoln Center and watch the original tape of the show, because I'd never actually seen it: I'd always been on the stage. It was great to see what we had done, and then I tried to forget almost all of it so I could treat it like a brand new process," Lofgren smiles slyly, leaning towards Williams in silent recognition. "But I will say, seeing it reminded me of how brilliant and how special of a piece that this is. So I really looked forward to coming back and revisiting it with a new spin."

The Hunnies were created almost from the ground up for Duncan-Gibbs, Lofgren, and Williams during the pre-Broadway workshop: while the show had initially tried out in Los Angeles, the parts were tailored to their strengths as performers before the show's New York debut, resulting in the Hunnie tracks often being referred to by each of their first names. Initially the same age as the feverishly athletic ensemble, the characters have now matured with the actors who play them into a force of maternal guidance.

"They really are these timeless creatures. What's so beautiful now is that the movement is enhanced by who we are, as these sort of preachers and sirens and fates, rather than trying to make us who we used to be," Lofgren says, her passion underlining her point. "Our alignment and our allegiance is elevated."

Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Nicholas Christopher, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Allison M. Williams in Jelly's Last Jam Joan Marcus

In an industry that often chases after the extremes of feminine youth, the trio are showcasing the divine talents that are overlooked when any kind of age limit is put on a performer.

"We're lucky enough that we come from the generation of Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, where they danced until God said it was time to not do it. We didn't have that mentality, where there was an age limit to our talent." Lofgren states, her voice strong with purpose. "I didn't know who I was until I was 35!" Duncan-Gibbs interjects as the trio burst into ebullient laughter.

After a brief moment, Lofgren continues, her tone turning somber. "If there's anything that has stopped us from being able to do all the things dance-wise that we've wanted to do, it has been ageism." Williams nods her head fiercely in agreement as Lofgren explains. "It is real. We may know that we're not too old to do it, but the world wouldn't think to have someone of our age doing this or that role. They default to somebody in their 20s. That's unfortunate, and I'm happy that we're able to sort of set that record straight here."

For Williams, it has been remarkable to observe the new members of the company uncover the secrets Jelly's Last Jam contains. "Some of them weren't even born when we did it originally–Nicholas was 2!" Williams exclaims, referring to Nicholas Christopher, who plays the titular role at Encores!

"I am really blown away by him," Lofgren shares, her smile widening as she reflects on Christopher's performance. "I mean, speaking personally, I didn't know what to expect. What Gregory did...But he [Christopher] walked in there, and crafted this person, this character, so thoroughly, so completely, and so brilliantly that I was just..." Lofgren sits back in her chair, shaking her head in amazement. "I have nothing but respect for him."

"When she says thorough, she means it." Williams adds. "I watch him every night. He's detailed in every part of his emotional being. If it's a look, if it's a body gesture, if it's a word or a note out of his mouth, it's all so detailed. I've absolutely fallen in love with what he's doing."

Allison M. Williams, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, Gregory Hines, and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs Courtesy of The New York Public Library

That Christopher so thoroughly rose to the challenge of playing Jelly Roll Morton is no feat to be brushed aside. The role is viciously difficult, requiring a dancer of sublime talent as well as a pianist, vocalist, and nearly virtuosic actor capable of shouldering incredibly difficult depths within the character. Originally starring Obba Babatunde in the Los Angeles production, the role was reformed around the late Gregory Hines for Broadway, becoming his Tony-winning signature role.

Hines passed away in 2003, but his impact still echoes through the piece and his co-stars, as testified by Williams and Duncan-Gibbs.

"Gregory and I had some really quiet moments together in his dressing room, where he taught me a lot of things," Williams recalls wistfully. "We talked a lot about developing character and going to the next level with every performance." That instinct, to never really finish the work of creation, extended to how they carried themselves off stage as well. "He had this freeness about him that was just magnificent, and we all learned so much from from him, just to not limit yourself and to go over the edge and take it as far as you can go with it. He taught us all that if they don't ask you, you ask them. He always said, 'If you want to get in, ask for it.'"

It's no mistake that that same advice, to ask for what you want, is what led to the trio returning to Jelly's Last Jam. The seeds of self confidence that were sown amongst the Hunnies have blossomed into a beautiful display of artistic excellence and fortitude.

"I remember scribbling my name once, on a poster," Duncan-Gibbs shares. "He said, 'You've worked really hard to get here—write your name out so people know who you are'. So I started writing my name really legibly, as opposed to just scribbling MDG. I started writing it with purpose, and treating my presence with purpose. Because it's no mistake that I, or any of us, are here. We are here on purpose."

Photos: Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center

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