Written by | Ray Cornelius
Acclaimed playwrighters, Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro, are bringing their new musical, “Alive! 55 + Kickin” to Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts for one night only this Saturday, July 30 at 4 p.m. The show, which has been featured twice on “60 Minutes,” consists of everyday people ages 55 and over, who tell their unique life stories through testimonies and songs. These brave souls prove that it’s never too late to live a dream.
I recently talked to the husband and wife team about the show’s success and why it’s selling out theaters across the country. We also dished about their legendary off-Broadway musical, “Mama I Want to Sing” and what it was like working with a very young Tisha Campbell-Martin. Check out my interview below:
RC: What was the inspiration behind Alive! 55 + Kickin?
VH: You know our community is so full of talent and we were auditioning for Mama I Want to Sing. A lot of older people came out and I looked at them and they were so incredibly amazing but obviously we couldn’t hire them all. So I knew I was working on a new play and told them, ‘I’m gonna call you back for something else.’ So they came back and what we discovered about them were their stories. So we put music together with these stories and it was something that just blew us away.
KW: Yeah, when they came to see us and auditioned for us, they were able to release and express stuff they’d suppressed and repressed for many, many years. Actually, the whole process of getting them up on stage was healing. Let’s get out the stuff that is inside or the stuff that’s hidden or never talked about. So the whole rehearsal period was therapeutic. The entire process of going inside out was healing for them on stage and it’s healing for the audience.
RC: Which story from Alive stands out the most to you?
VH: Every single story has an impact on me. But one of the stories that always touches me is about a mother, who became a single mother and had to raise her two children by herself. When she sings the song, If I Could by Regina Belle, she questions whether she’s been a good mother or not. You ask yourself, ‘I hope I have given them all of the tools to survive’ and yet you’re not sure. You also watch them go off to college and go off into life not knowing for sure whether you did a good job or not.
KW: There’s another story about a woman who auditioned for Mama I Want to Sing when she was 14 years old. She got a call back but never returned because she was afraid. So she got married and went off to school and she gets a job as a dispatcher for New York City’s emergency system. Well, she was on duty during 9/11/2001 when the planes hit the World Trade Center and she was the main dispatcher to get the police to and from Ground Zero. Well that day was so stressful for her that she suffered a massive heart attack and had to retire. She didn’t know what she was going to do with the rest of her life after that. Then someone told her that Alive was auditioning and she got a call back and now she tells that story in the show. She also sings The Impossible Dream and that’s at the end of act one.
RC: You’re also the creators of the legendary off-Broadway musical, Mama I Want to Sing. What was the origin of that show?
VH: It’s the story of my family and the story of my life. My sister, my mother and my father, who was a minister. My sister was a pop/soul classic singer who traveled the United States, Europe and Japan. Her name was Doris Troy and she performed the song, Just One Look. She also worked with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I wanted to tell that story about how the music left the church and got on the world stage. She had auditioned at the Apollo and it took her off in that direction.
KW: Vy and I had just met and we were on vacation in Jamaica when she told me her story and I said, ‘That’s a musical!’ So we took the idea and the script downtown to Broadway and they said no, ‘Black people would come there and it’s too gospel and too this.’ So we had to find our own theater and our own space and the people did come. They came in buses. They came from Jersey and Philadelphia. This was 1983 and Tisha Campbell was in it. It’s also the longest running Black off-Broadway show in the history of America. It was the forerunner for others like Shelly Garrett’s Beauty Shop and Tyler Perry’s Madea.
RC: Tisha Campbell-Martin was one of the first actresses to star in Mama I Want to Sing. What was it about her that made you cast her in the show?
VH: It’s funny! I was publishing a magazine called Unique New York and her mother brought her to our offices and said, ‘My daughter can sing.’ And so she put on a tape (I can see her doing it right now) and hit the button and this little girl went into action. After I met Ken, we began talking about my sister and the story of the church and we put all of that together and there was Mama I Want to Sing. So when we wrote the story, we thought about who could play the role of the little girl and immediately thought about Tisha.
KW: What I remember the most about Tisha Campbell at 14 was that she was a good actress. She was a very talented singer but she was a great actress. In the show, we recreate a scene that actually happened to Vy’s sister Doris when she was 8-years-old. She was singing and present at a Sunday church service when her father collapsed and died right there in the pulpit. So when we were recreating that scene, Tisha not only pulled it off but she acted as if her own father had died. The audience just went through the roof.
RC: What is the take away message from Alive! 55 + Kickin?
VH: I want audiences to be encouraged and motivated and not limited by age. I want them to be engaged and stimulated to say, ‘What did I always want to do and is there a chance for me to do some of those things?’ Please understand that the first 50 years of your life is for learning and the second 50 years is for living and that it’s not over yet. People are living longer. Make better plans so you can be engaged. I also want people to think about what you can pass on to the next generation that comes behind you. We’ve accumulated some wisdom and we can’t let that die with us. The same way we can’t let the music die with us. We can not let the sounds that we contributed die with us. So therefore we must pass it on. That is why we do this show.
Photo Credit: Alive55TheMusical.com