Mama, I Want To Sing! first burst onto the stage on March 23, 1983. Creators Vy Higginsen and husband Ken Wydro invested their life savings into producing the musical at the 632-seat Heckscher Theatre, now known as El Museo's El Teatro, in East Harlem, New York. Based on the life of Higginsen's sister singer Doris Troy, the uplifting musical was a huge success, running for eight years with 2,800 performances off-Broadway and another 1,000 performances throughout the globe. Now, Mama, I Want To Sing! is back home for its 40th anniversary for a limited engagement.
EBONY spoke with Higginsen about the significance of this momentous return and the impact of her nonprofit, the Mama Foundation for the Arts, on young voices.
EBONY: How is it to have your show back in the theater where it all started?
Vy Higginsen: Having the show back in the theater where it all started is especially emotional and at the same time very exhilarating. The marriage between Mama, I Want to Sing! and the theater was a marriage made in heaven. It was the right place at the right time with the right talent. People came from all over to see it there so returning is like a homecoming to where it all began. These are magical days!
What inspired you to write this musical, which is based on your sister?
It’s the story of my oldest sister Doris Troy, who sang and wrote the pop-soul classic “Just One Look.” We grew up in Harlem on 126th Street. Our family has been on the same block for almost 100 years. The Apollo was just down the street and our father's church was on 130th Street and Lenox Avenue. It's the story of music, coming from the church, onto the stage, into the Harlem clubs, onto the radio and then worldwide. Mama, I Want to Sing! was inspired by a friend who later became my husband in a conversation about music and the importance and power of music, speaking of the time I spent on WBLS radio, playing and celebrating African American music and its contribution to the American musical landscape.
Who is starring in this historical homecoming? Are you appearing in the show this time around and are any other famous faces returning?
I will perform in the shows, but I’m also going to share the stage with some of my WBLS broadcast brothers and sisters like Diana King and G. Keith Alexander who were in the original productions as well. Richard Hartley, who had a TV series called The Rev, he's returning to play The Rev. We found three new ingenues, brand new talent out of LaGuardia High School who will be sharing the leading role of Doris Winter. So we have several important people joining the cast and sharing the roles as we celebrate the 40th anniversary.
How has the show changed or evolved over the past 40 years?
We update the music on occasion and change some of the costumes, but the message is in the music and in the lyrics. We represent the African American culture of gospel, jazz and R&B, so we want to be authentic in this presentation for the 40th anniversary.
What's your favorite number?
Oh, I have so many favorite numbers in the show! My favorite number, although I do have many as we move through different genres of music, but the opening scene is so musically impactful because we take you on a musical journey. We take you from gospel to opera to Jazz in one song, and we show the skill set, vocal dexterity and power of the choir to blend and harmonize with energy.
What is the Mama Foundation and why is it important to you?
The Mama Foundation for the Arts is the home of Mama, I Want to Sing! and strives to present, preserve and promote the history, legacy, and culture of African American music. Black music is the largest export of music than any other culture; we want to make sure young people and older people alike are reminded to celebrate and appreciate the music of their ancestors. Young people need to know who they are and where they come from musically. We make sure to put young people in positions to be ambassadors of the culture and history of Black music with our music education programs. Young people from the ages of 7 to 19 years of age are taught the fundamentals of breathing, harmony, pitch and control, paired with a repertoire of music that is presented at end-of-semester concerts in the winter and spring. It shows audiences what they have learned and what they have retained and displays their appreciation of the music that has been contributed by some of the greatest artists of all time. The Mama Foundation offers this education to students at no cost to them or their families. Music was taken out of the schools, so we exist and have made it our mission to make sure to put the power of music back into our young people.
How has the organization impacted its participants?
As a result of the growth of the Mama Foundation, voices who have emerged from the arts education program have gone on to sing all over the country in Sing Harlem, a traveling choir that has had the privilege of being the Harlem singing sensation seen on America's Got Talent. They have supported artists like Chance the Rapper, SZA, Madonna and many more! They have also been featured on programs like Saturday Night Live, Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and The Kelly Clarkson Show. And Sing Harlem Voices are cast as the choir in Mama, I Want to Sing!, continuing to carry along the history of Black music and the mission of The Mama Foundation. The children are the future!
Mama, I Want to Sing! starts February 23 at El Museo's El Teatro. Tickets are available at www.MamaFoundation.org.