You've seen him as Captain Hook in the Peter Pan revival, or as Growltiger/Asparagus in Cats (Tony nomination, Best Featured Actor in a Musical) or the NYSF production of  The Pirates of Penzance.  In fact, Stephen Mo Hanan's credits roll on and on. He's known as a singer/actor's singer/actor. Now you can add writer to his credits. And star turn. His Al Jolson in the York Theater Company's world premiere of Jolson & Co., which he co-wrote with director Jay Berkow) is a showstopper. His realization of one of the century's entertainment phenomena's is uncanny, dramatically and musically -- he sings 14 songs. And yet it's not a carbon copy.

"The more we delved," says Hanan, "the more we became more convinced we should show the kind of electrifying sensation he was."  Jolson was the greatest male star of the 30s and 40s, with such million-selling classics as  "Swanee," "Mammy," "April Showers" and "California, Here I Come," and made several comebacks before he died in 1950. "But, most people looking at archival footage of Jolson singing in and out of blackface might wonder what all the fuss was about.

"He was such a sensation on stage, in films (including the first "talkie") and on record, he found it hard to break the formula," Hanan added. "In person, he was the first male to display intense erotic energy.  He celebrated male sexuality in a way comparable to later rock singers. Jolson was an exponent of emerging jazz styles, however, on record, he was more restrained. And what we see on film is a pale shadow."

As Hanan read biographies and articles by the era's leading theater critics (Robert Benchley, George Jean Nathan and Gilbert Seldes -- Marian's father), he says, "what struck me were the eyewitness accounts of  Jolson's incredible interaction with audiences and his dynamism as an entertainer by never singing the same song the same way twice."

Jolson & Co. is the first of several attempts to bring the entertainer's life to the New York stage. To Hanan and Berkow's credit, they don't whitewash Jolson's stormy personal life and the fact that he wasn't one of show business's best-loved personalities. Onstage, Hanan is ably abetted by Robert Ari as, among a host of other roles, radio commentator Barry Gray and, in a star-making turn, Nancy Anderson, as Jolie's wives (among them, Ruby Keeler) and Mae West.


Key Subjects: 
Stephen Mo Hanan, Jolson & Co., Al Jolson
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
December 1999
Stephen Mo Hanan