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‘Soul Train’ musical starts its track to Broadway in SF

‘Soul Train’ musical starts its track to Broadway in SF

For decades, “Soul Train” was a trend-setting phenomenon in American households, a nonstop dance party that brought African American music, fashion and dance trends into the spotlight in a way then seldom seen on television.

Created by Chicago broadcaster Don Cornelius, “Soul Train” helped launch the careers of stars such as Jody Watley, Vivica A. Fox and Rosie Perez who, started out as dancers on the show.

Now American Conservatory Theater is premiering a Broadway-bound jukebox musical tracing the history of the long-running TV show from its 1970 Chicago debut through its 36 years on the air and the many waves of popular music that it featured.

“It changed the entire cultural landscape of television,” says playwright Dominique Morisseau, who wrote the book of the musical. “It defined a presence of Black commercials, Black products, Black consumerism for independent and established Black businesses who were putting their commercials on the ‘Soul Train’ slot. That kind of marketing representation, having products built catering to the kind of hair that I had — that wouldn’t have happened without that show.”

A MacArthur “Genius” grantee, Morisseau is known for powerful dramas like “Skeleton Crew” and “Paradise Blue” as well as the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud” that debuted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2017.

“My ‘Soul Train’ was not the ‘Soul Train’ of the ’70s,” Morisseau says. “My ‘Soul Train’ was the ‘Soul Train’ of the ’80s and ’90s. After my cartoons, that was the last thing I watched before it was time to go do something else on Saturday. And it was also where I would see the latest dances and see my music artists get a chance to perform on the show. I would see my fashion and culture that was of my generation reflected.”

“My mom tells the story of how she watched the first episode,” says “Hippest Trip” choreographer Camille A. Brown. “It came on when she was in college working at Macy’s. At the time, Macy’s had an electronic department, and she said all the Black kids went to that floor and turned on the TVs and were watching ‘Soul Train.’ And they just thought it was the most amazing thing, because they saw reflections of themselves. They saw fashion, they saw music, they saw all the things that they listened to on the radio, and it’s in front of them, live in color.”

“And then I grew up on ‘Soul Train’ in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Brown added. “So I had the same experience my mom did in terms of seeing Bell Biv DeVoe and all these amazing stars that I heard on the radio there in front of me, doing the most current dances and the most current fashion.”

Brown, whose self-named own dance company has played Berkeley’s Cal Performances several times, became the first Black woman to both direct and choreograph a Broadway show in 67 years with the 2022 revival of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” She also choreographed the production of “Toni Stone” that opened at ACT the night before COVID shut everything down in March 2020.

“We’re not just talking about the ’70s version of ‘Soul Train,’” Brown says. “We’re talking about all of ‘Soul Train.’ So you see time travel. You’re going to see a variety of one group of social dances that tell a certain time period, and then you’ll see another group of social dances that tell another time period.”

“One of the things I think is probably maybe most useful to know is that this is not a variety show,” Morisseau says. “We’re not duplicating all the acts that have ever been on ‘Soul Train’ and just making them sing their songs. That is not what’s happening in the musical … . If you want to see your favorite ‘Soul Train’ performance, you should probably YouTube that. This is a story about Don and the dancers that have made the show what it is in so many ways.”

The show draws upon the many, many songs featured on “Soul Train” over the years. But as for what songs they are, Morisseau says to expect the unexpected.

“What do you associate with a TV show that’s been on the air for four decades?” Morisseau says. “That’s going to cover a lot of kinds of music. There will be songs that feel like, oh yeah, if I was picturing a ‘Soul Train’ musical, that song makes sense. And there’ll be other songs that you have no idea are going to be in the musical. And they won’t be used in the ways that are necessarily expected.”

Morisseau credits the musical depth of the show to its music curator, Jimmy Keys, who happens to be her husband.

“He went through all the decades of every episode that ever aired on ‘Soul Train,’ to help me figure out which of these songs should I be trying to put in this show,” she says. “I needed somebody who understood how I tell stories to help me make these songs feel like they were written for this story.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at shurwitt@gmail.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.

‘HIPPEST TRIP — THE SOUL TRAIN MUSICAL’

Book by Dominique Morisseau, music and lyrics by various artists, presented by American Conservatory Theater

Through: Oct. 8

Where: ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

Tickets: $25-$130; 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org