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THEATER : Hot Off the Griddle : Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written dozens of rock 'n' roll classics through the years. Now, with director Jerry Zaks' help, their hits are playing hot 'n' heavy at 'Smokey Joe's Cafe.' (And boy are they glad.)

November 13, 1994|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a regular contributor to Calendar

More than four decades after starting out in the business, and two decades after more or less retiring from the hit parade, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller still stand as the most successful non-performing writing partnership in the history of rock 'n' roll.

Imagine that no one else but these two had ever written a rock song. There'd still be more than enough to go around to keep a pretty terrific oldies station in business: "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Treat Me Nice," "Loving You," "Kansas City," "Stand by Me," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion No. 9" and "Ruby Baby," just for starters.

To KRTH-FM devotees, the crucial parts of the canon may carry a certain sacrosanctity--but not necessarily to the writers themselves, whose legacy was not arrived at without a faculty for self-criticism.

This is abundantly evident as Leiber, the lyricist of the duo, recounts a candid conversation of the previous week with veteran stage director Jerry Zaks ("Guys & Dolls"). Zaks was down at the Doolittle Theatre, rehearsing "Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller," a book-less musical revue that opens Thursday on the Hollywood stage after a Chicago tryout earlier this year. (The Chicago version, called "Baby That's Rock 'n' Roll," was directed and choreographed by Otis Sallid; the L.A. version is choreographed by Joey McKneely.)

It seems the four-time Tony-winning director wanted to include the 1959 Drifters hit "There Goes My Baby" in the show but couldn't seem to settle upon a way to stage the ballad. Leiber was blunt in his advice: "Why don't you throw it out of the show?"

"And, I mean, I wasn't kidding," he assures. "I told Zaks, 'I can't stand this song anyway. It's my least favorite song. It's stupid.' There goes my baaayyyybeee . . . " Leiber begins singing the chorus like a derisive schoolboy, in case it's not yet abundantly clear that, all humility aside, he as a matter of fact really and genuinely does not like this song .

"And he said, 'You want to know something? . . . It's my favorite song.' I said, 'It's your favorite song?' I was completely nonplussed; it stopped me cold in my tracks. I mean, what can I say: 'You must be stupid too?' Or, 'How can you like this stupid song? We wrote it on the back of somebody's ass, and it doesn't make any sense, and (the recording) is out of tune, and the reason you don't know how to stage it is because (the lyrics) didn't mean anything?'

"He said, 'I don't care about any of those things. This song is an anthem . To a certain teen-ager in a particular time, it was significant, and a lot of people in a 12- to 15-year age differential love it, because it has meaning to them. And I am going to find a significant way of staging it in the show.'

"I said, 'Great!' " Leiber says, suddenly equal parts enthusiastic and begrudging.

The modesty does not extend, of course, to every song in the figuratively and literally rich catalogue. The writer-producer pair profess pride in the "Smokey Joe's Cafe" show not just as a vanity booster but a chance to revive some of their lesser-known numbers alongside the obvious Elvis and Coasters chestnuts.

Of the more obscure numbers in the show, Stoller says: "Maybe we missed when we made the records, but the songs are still there, and we've had an opportunity to have them presented in a better light. You know, not every record you make is as good as it could be, and some of these songs, we just didn't get 'em right on the first go-round, and so we're taking another shot."

The show is performed by nine singer-dancers with a seven-piece band: 40 or so songs, nonstop but for an intermission. Mindful of three earlier attempts within the last decade to create a musical around their existing body of work--two that were staged in London alone and one in Seattle that was the loose springboard for "Smokey Joe's"--the celebrated collaborators are glad there's no attempt at wrapping a text around their songs in this, the largest such L&S-based production to date.

There are plans afoot to take the show to a Broadway theater, the Virginia, this coming February. It's a long way to the Great White Way for what started out as a career writing semi-scandalous "race" music in the early '50s. It might be a fulfillment of a dream . . . or maybe just a half-fulfillment.

"A few years after we first started writing songs, we thought about theater," Stoller says. "Even though we were both very in tune with blues singers and black culture, we were exposed to a lot of other things--among them, obviously, songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser. And we harbored a desire to do that."

What happened?

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