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January, 2005

INTERVIEW ON WONDER CONCERT
Interview with Darius de Haas
by Robert Diamond
Ronnell Bey & Nicki Richards singing backup for Dairus de Haas
Photo © BenStrothmann.com

When presented last year, Darius de Haas' "Stevie Wonder Songbook" concert at Lincoln Center was a sold-out hit…so he's doing two more shows on February 4th. We checked in with the star of stage and concerts to find out what to expect.


Darius de Haas' theatrical resume contains performing in such varied shows as Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carousel, Rent, Marie Christine, on Broadway, Running Man (for which he wan an Obie) Off-Broadway, and the world tour of I Was Looking at the Ceiling. Now his concert career is bringing him back to Lincoln Center this February for a repeat of last year's wildly popular Stevie Wonder Songbook Concert.


Darius' Lincoln Center experience began back in 2001 with the "Variations on Strayhorn" concerts which presented the music of composer Billy Strayhorn as part of the American Songbook series. "I'd done some other concerts for the Songbook Series at Lincoln Center, and I went to them to propose a few ideas, one of which was a tribute to Stevie Wonder. The reason I mentioned him, is because he's a singer songwriter that I grew up with, someone who I very closely identify with and I adore his music. I knew that no one had really done any kind of concert of his work other than him really."


The series agreed, and the timing of the concert seemed perfect last year as other tribute recordings to Stevie Wonder came out, showing a renewed national interest in the star. "I'm glad to be able to do my own tribute to him, with my own arrangements, and with my own investments. I wasn't really expecting very much to come out of it, because we put it together very quickly, but the response to it was very tremendous. They wanted me to come back, and I'm thrilled to be able to do so."


This time around, the concert will be presented in the new Rose Hall on Columbus Circle, part of the Center's new Jazz Space. "I think that's very exciting because I think a lot of people are very curious about what those spaces are like. Those spaces were made for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra so they could be heard in the way that they wanted to be heard, but they also opened it up to other departments like the Songbook because it sort of spreads the wealth so I'm very excited to be part of it."


Rather than simply imitating the inimitable talents of Stevie Wonder, what Darius hopes to bring to the table is his own take on the music, and a fresh take. "It's all based on what his albums were, but I didn't want it to come off like me doing Stevie Wonder wedding band music, or trying to imitate what he does. I fortunately sing in a lot of his keys so that helped, but I didn't want audiences to expect that I'd sound like him, or do the exact same arrangements. There's some things that you just leave alone, and let the songs just speak for themselves, and then there's some room here and there, for how you personally feel a song strikes you, you want to invest in that and invest in those lyrics. The end result might mean something totally different than when the song's first out, so in knowing that, the arrangements sort of change."


Musical direction is being handled by Richard Cummings with whom Darius worked on the arrangements the first time around. "It was really amazing because we really did it so quickly that I didn't really know what we had. But, I think there's something to be said for having to work in under a deadline, with no time at all, to get those creative juices going."


Something that all concerts of recognizable material have going for it, is the fact that the material is so well known in the popular culture. "The songs will be recognizable, there are songs that people will know. I'm hoping that there are songs that people aren't as familiar with, but they will be open to taking in as well. Because again, it's not a greatest hits show even though there are a lot of great hits in it. It's like a collage of his songs, some well known, and some which are not, just sort of thrown together in my own way to make a nice, cohesive evening."


Some of the songs that audiences can expect to hear include Signed Sealed Delivered, Lately, Too Shy to Say, I Wish, Written in the Sky, As If You Read My Mind, Summersoft, Too High, Where Were You When I Needed You, and You are the Sunshine of My Life.


The concert is geared to appeal to both the casual listener, and the hardcore fan.
"It's a pretty nice mix, and there's some people who are diehards who know all the songs, and then some people that just know the really popular stuff, and may not be as familiar but seem to really be able to dig it so I'm looking forward to being able to sharing it all."


Those that enjoyed the show the last time around can expect much of the same songs this time, but not completely. "Compared to last year's, I might change a couple of songs in favor of other ones because I'm always exploring, and there's so much music. The hardest thing was the wealth of material, because we were cutting down from like 35 songs, and if we'd done everything that everyone wanted me to do, we would have been there all night. I had to really put my nose to the grindstone, and judiciously cut as much of the stuff as I felt would be necessary to make a good cohesive evening, and to satisfy people who are and aren't really familiar with his stuff. I also had to satisfy myself artistically, because they're all songs that say something to me. What will be different is that people will see a more relaxed show, as I will have already done it now, and can invest more into not, not just running on adrenaline and nervousness, but having the experience of having done the show now. I will not change too much because not enough people got to see it the last time. I tend to want to change things, thinking we've done that already, but what you don't realize is that for every 200 people that come to see your show in a given space, there's hundreds more who didn't get to see it. A big thing that I got afterwards from people who saw, or heard about the show was 'are you doing it again?' and I said 'yes!' so I didn't want to change it too much in case people heard about specific things I did."


The music of Stevie Wonder is amongst the many musical influences that Darius had growing up, and listening to his music certainly helped shape the performer that he is today. As with many musically gifted performers though, his parents helped too. "I come from a family, and music in our household was playing 24 hours a day. My father is a jazz bassist, and my mother and sister are singers so there was constantly music going on in and out of the house, and exposure to all kinds of stuff - jazz, classical, show tunes, all that stuff. I think the reason I'm such a big fan of Stevie Wonders', is that in my own way I could claim him as mine. I really felt like that 'ok, this is the music I'm listening to' not just because my parents gave it to me, but that it's music that I'm hearing because I wanted to listen to it."


"On top of that because he is such a prolific songwriter, my fondness and my admiration for him just grows through the years.
So many of his songs that were written in the 70s still have a lot of resonance today. Those lyrics, even though they were written in response to a particular time; there's a timeless quality to them, and that's what I think makes a great songwriter. I find in singing those songs, even today in the world as it is, it's amazing how it can be applied to things in politics or social conditions. He really has thrown himself out there, writing what's out there in the world, observing, he's very aware, very astute. A lot of Martin Luther King's Birthday for example becoming a national holiday was him being part of that campaign to make it a national holiday. He's there at the front of many, many causes, and he fosters new musicians coming in. He's very generous. I don't know him personally but I do know people who do know him, and they say he's one of the most generous, lovely people to be around and that coupled with that prodigious talent, you can't go wrong. I continue to be a fan of his, and to make discoveries. Just before you called I was going over one of the newer songs today, and just finding new meanings in his lyrics, and it's amazing. I never get tired of it. He's one composer that I think I could never get tired of listening to or singing his music."


The Stevie Wonder Songbook concert is just one of many things that Darius is currently cooking up. He recently returned to town from the Sundance Institute in Florida where he was working on Terrence McNally's latest - "Some Men." Coming soon will be his own one man show, entitled "The Man in My Head." "A friend of mine, Michael Wartofski, a graduate of NYU's graduate musical theater writing program, who currently teaches in Boston, is currently working on a one-man musical for me, which we're going to take into workshop in March, and present it at NYU. We just got a librettist, Tommy DeFrantz to come on board to help flesh it out."


It's not the last you'll see of him at Lincoln Center this season either. Darius will also be taking part in the NY Festival of Song's "At Harlem's Height" which presents the works of African-American composers and writers at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance including Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Langston Hughes and others.


Darius sums his next few months up best noting "I've got a pretty full plate, and it's a pretty great beginning to the year."

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