A Buoyant ’70s Musical About Black Lives Lands in 2018

Micki Grant, in a rehearsal room at New York City Center, became the first woman to write both the music and lyrics to a Broadway musical with “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” in 1972.

Several clusters of GET WELL SOON! balloons bobbed slightly in a corner of the ceiling in Micki Grant’s Upper West Side living room. They had lost a bit of helium, but not so much as to ground them.

Ms. Grant, 77, had recently returned from a two-week hospital stay with some respiratory issues. But she had more than enough energy — and, judging from several impromptu snippets of song, enough lung power — to revisit the Broadway revue that vaulted her from soap opera performer to musical theater pioneer almost a half century ago, in part by confronting the era’s heavy subject matter with its own buoyancy.

That show, with the ever-relevant title “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” used gospel, calypso, spoken-word, rock, jazz, soul and even rudimentary hip-hop music to discuss everything from slumlords to feminism to numbers rackets. It made history when it reached Broadway in 1972 via stops in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia: Ms. Grant became the first woman to write both the music and lyrics to a Broadway musical, and her longtime collaborator Vinnette Carroll was the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway.

“I was just writing about my community about what I saw on the news and on the streets and in the church,” Ms. Grant recalled. “And Vinnette said — no, she demanded — ‘People need to hear this.’”

The show touched down at several smaller New York theaters before opening on Broadway, which qualifies it for Encores! Off-Center, City Center’s annual tribute to smaller-scale and Off Broadway musicals. It opens July 25, wrapping up a three-show summer series that included well-received concert stagings of “Songs for a New World” and “Gone Missing.”

“One of the things we try to do with Off-Center is reveal what the legacy is,” said Jeanine Tesori, who, along with Anne Kauffman, serves as artistic director of the series. “Micki and Vinnette were inserting hip-hop and spoken-word into musical theater decades before many other people were.”

When it opened on Broadway in 1972, the New York Times critic Clive Barnes described it as “a mixture of a block party and a revival meeting,” albeit one that found room for references to Sojourner Truth and Archie Bunker.

Ms. Grant, who received two Tony Award nominations as well as a Grammy for “Don’t Bother Me,” said the warmth of the material suited her natural temperament, but was also a tactical move on her part.

“There was a lot of angry theater out there at the time, especially in the black community — Bullins, Jones,” she said, referring to such incendiary playwrights as Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones, who later became known as Amiri Baraka. “I wanted to come at it with a soft fist. I wanted to open eyes but not turn eyes away.”

Ms. Grant, who went on to work with Carroll on “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” in 1976 and several other pieces, can still quote a letter she received decades ago from an audience member: “It made me bleed, but the incision was so clean.”

Two miles south of Ms. Grant’s home, the current “Don’t Bother Me” creative team was getting ready to make cuts of another kind. Savion Glover, the revival’s director and choreographer, was huddled with two fellow dancers to decide how to reorder the material while remaining true to Ms. Grant’s vision.

“We’re looking to find the story inside these songs, as opposed to just a revue,” said Mr. Glover, who was a young boy in Newark, N.J., when his mother and aunts toured the region performing “Don’t Bother Me” and other musicals. He still remembers singing along with his siblings to the propulsive “They Keep Coming” as they drove to summer camp.

George Faison, who choreographed the original production not long after leaving the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, said he has gained a whole new appreciation of Ms. Grant and her message in the decades since “Don’t Bother Me.” He quoted from one of the show’s better-known songs: “It takes a whole lot of human feeling/To make a human being.”

“I’ll be honest,” Mr. Faison said. “At the time, those may have felt like platitudes to me. But I’ve come to appreciate the sentiments behind this show more and more.”

Mr. Glover agrees with his predecessor. “This show is timeless,” he said. “It’s our story told through song.”

Even within the punishingly tight time constraints of Encores! rehearsals, Mr. Glover said he also hopes to re-examine the divvying up of material among the production’s cast members. Carroll, who died in 2002, originally saved the appearance of Ms. Grant herself for the second half of the show, but that may not remain the case for the performer (or even performers) who end up singing her material.

One thing that will stay the same (as it did when the York Theater performed its own concert staging in 2016) is the barrage of torn-from-the-headlines historical references, which range from Operation Breadbasket to Godfrey Cambridge. Encores! has a tradition of being far more faithful to the musical material than to the original books (and often for good reason), but an all-sung revue like “Don’t Bother Me” doesn’t allow for such pruning.

Ms. Grant said the show’s core elements — “who we are, our contributions, what we did” — remain as pertinent and as vital as they did nearly 50 years ago. Still, she said she’s tempted to take a fresh look at those references.

“When it first started, I would change it all the time based on what was going on in the news,” she said. “I’ve got to take a look at it again. If nothing else, I’ve got to get Obama in there somewhere.”

The most likely destination? “They Keep Coming,” the same song a young Savion Glover chanted in the back seat of his family’s car on the way to camp.

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