Ray Charles lights new stage

Musical about singer set for Pasadena Playhouse

HOLLYWOOD — The Ray Charles-mania started by Universal’s Oscar-winning biopic of the musician three years ago is showing few signs of slowing.

A tuner about Charles, with a book by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), will receive its world premiere in November at Southern California’s Pasadena Playhouse.

Separately, Ray Charles Enterprises has opened, for the first time, a unit to license tunes for film, TV and advertising, and the Charles vaults are being combed to dig up unreleased material.

“Ray Charles Live! — A New Musical,” which bows Nov. 9 and runs through Dec. 9, will be produced by the team behind the 2004 Jamie Foxx starrer, “Ray” — Stuart Benjamin, Howard and Karen Baldwin and Steve Markoff — along with Charles’ longtime manager Joe Adams.When the producing team acquired legit rights to Charles’ story and music in 2005, the obvious goal was a Broadway production to capitalize on the biopic and the worldwide success of Charles’ final album. That multimillion-seller, “Genius Loves Company,” garnered eight Grammys. No Broadway theater is so far lined up, nor have producers planned beyond the initial November run.

“We’re not thinking about anything beyond the Pasadena production,” Benjamin says, though he did note that the production team has the financial resources to get the show to a second staging without bringing in new partners.

Sheldon Epps, the Playhouse’s artistic director for the last 10 years, will stage the tuner.

Pasadena’s most recent high-profile production was the musical “Sister Act,” a co-production with Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, where it played earlier this year. That tuner, based on the 1992 pic of the same name, has yet to secure a Rialto booking.

While there is certainly growing trepidation about jukebox musicals, “Ray Charles Live!” has the benefit of a popular film spelling out the facts of the musician’s story.

“Basically, many people have been told the facts about his life through the film,” Epps says. “I keep emphasizing that this experience is to get to know the man in a deeper way. Like a great concert or cabaret show, music is used to reveal the deeper person.”

Benjamin, who met with Charles in the late 1980s, says the stage show will include references to his womanizing and drug use, “but the play focuses more on the music. It’s more personal,” he explains. “It pays respect to and really celebrates Ray Charles.”

Parks has set the show in a concert hall with Charles recording his final live album. Charles reviews his life, with characters from his past appearing onstage. There is a central Charles figure, as well as an actor portraying the musician as a young boy and another playing him in his late teens and early 20s.

Whereas the film ended in 1965 when Charles was 35 years old, the tuner will cover his entire life, up to his death on June 10, 2004, at age 73.

Musically, Epps says that of the 30 or so songs that will appear in the tuner, all the hits will be covered along with some “buried treasures.”

A vault search a couple of years ago led to the posthumously assembled effort “Ray Sings, Basie Swings,” which Concord Records issued late last year; it has sold 200,000 copies to date.

Reps from Ray Charles Enterprises now are cataloging unreleased songs at Charles’ L.A. studios. The intention is to license those discoveries for release along with recordings from the 1960s long out of print. Charles retained the rights to his master recordings from 1960 on.

By the estate’s estimate, only about 20 of Charles’ 1,500 recordings have been used in film (more than 80 of them), TV or advertising. Charles was adamant during his lifetime, however, that in most cases he would not allow his tracks to appear on compilation albums or soundtrack discs. In many cases, that increased the value of the original Charles albums.

There are examples, such as “Sleepless in Seattle,” which featured his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the pic but not the CD, foregoing considerable revenues from a soundtrack that sold 5 million copies worldwide.

Charles’ former lawyer Ivan Hoffman and licensing exec Tony Gumina have been brought onboard at Ray Charles Marketing Group to expedite music and marketing deals.

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