Before the Supremes, there were the Shirelles. Think of “Mama Said,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “I Met Him on a Sunday,” to name just a few of this group’s early breakthrough hits.
A major 1960’s girl group, the Shirelles made their name singing original numbers unlike many contemporary vocalists and groups who often depend on covers. Terrific harmonies and tuneful hits notwithstanding, they needed a tenacious supporter to develop and advance their career in the 1950’s – a decade in which women, African Americans and especially black women faced discrimination.
Enter Florence Greenberg - a Passaic, New Jersey Jewish housewife turned big-time impresario and record label pioneer. The Shirelles-Greenberg saga has rightly reached Broadway in a music-rich musical entitled “Baby It’s You.” Nostalgia addicts are likely to love this show, but Shirelles fans and 60’s buffs will wonder why there is not more substance to the Floyd Mutrux-Colin Escott book.
The Mutrux-Escott book does provide some of the basic details of the meteoric rise of the Shirelles and the pivotal part that Greenberg played in turning some of their key songs into number one hits - most notably “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Soldier Boy.”
Florence’s daughter Mary Jane is credited for bringing her talented classmates - Shirley Alston, Beverly Lee, Doris Kenner and Addie “Micki” Harris - to the attention of her ambitious mother. Her son Stanley - blind at birth - is given some attention in the sometimes bare-bones book of the musical as someone who was astute about the music business in his own right.
As for Florence herself, first-class actress-singer Beth Leavel - a Tony Award winner for the title role in the recent musical “Drowsy Chaperone” - often provides more drive and edge to her remarkably strong-willed character than the show’s uneven text.
Mutrux and Escott should have done more with Florence’s back story as a community and political activist. At the same time, the early domestic scenes with chauvinistic husband Bernie need the kind of sharp dialogue familiar in the work of famed screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky rather than the sitcom-like banter here. After all, Florence was the first woman to start a major record label - namely Scepter Records - and a true revolutionary. The musical does not gloss over independent-minded Florence’s then controversial affair with black songwriter (“Tonight’s the Night”) and producer Luther Dixon, played with convincing forcefulness by Allan Louis, who sings resonantly on Dixon’s work with the Shirelles.
“Baby It’s You” does indicate that her major clients besides the Shirelles included such talents as the Isley Brothers, Chuck Jackson and Dionne Warwick, who actually subbed for two of the Shirelles at the times of their marriages.
But the writers seem to provide a much thinner narrative than one finds about the initial difficulties confronting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in the more satisfying bio-musical “The Jersey Boys.”
The authors could have taken a hint from the better-scripted “Dreamgirls.” That musical certainly made a stronger effort to deal with the challenges encountered by black vocalists in the pre-civil rights law days.
More should have been done with the fact that 1960’s British groups actually did covers of Shirelles hits - even the then young Beatles singing “Baby It’s You,” the title song of the show. There is an important story waiting in the wings here about how this major pre-Motown group should have succeeded even more both artistically and financially.
If only Mutrux and Escott had given more attention to the inner trials of the individual Shirelles in the face of bigotry and a music industry often more concerned about white audiences and white performers than about the original performers of some of the best-loved romance numbers of the 50’s and 60’s.
At least, “Baby It’s You” does give audiences an ample repertoire of the Shirelle’s hits sung with spirit and feeling. Under Mutrux and Sheldon Epps’ generally effective direction, Christina Sajous as lead singer Shirley and Crystal Starr as Doris are the standouts in the quartet, which also includes good turns by Erica Ash as Micki and Kyra Da Costa as Beverly.
Leavel, Louis and Erika Ash as Warwick come together for a striking turn on “Walk On By” as the show demonstrates Greenberg’s foresight in championing a sophisticated and important songwriter like Burt Bacharach as he became a force in American popular music.
Is “Baby It’s You” a musical with multiple identities? At first it seems to focus on Greenberg as much as the budding Shirelles. Later the show focuses as much on the variety of Greenberg’s clients and the evolution of Scepter Records as on the Shirelles themselves.
Until Mutrux and Escott rewrite their musical or create one more focused on the Shirelles themselves, pop and R & B buffs will have to settle for the substantial vocal pleasures on display with blingy Lizz Wolf costumes and smart Howell Binkley lighting at the Broadhurst Theatre. More demanding Shirelles fans may want to walk on by “Baby It’s You.”
“Baby It’s You,” Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway, open-ended run. 800-432-7250.