A musical – written by Rupert Holmes (yes, If You Like Pina Coladas, Tony Award-winning Rupert Holmes) with music by Melissa Manchester and lyrics by Sharon Vaughn – opens at New Stage Theatre on March 13. Brookhaven native Randy Redd (who directed 2017’s wildly successful Million Dollar Quartet at New Stage) will direct.
The show that loosely chronicles Browne’s life, based on her series of New York Times best-selling books, is nearly twenty years in the making.
“When we were working on a pilot for the sitcom for the WB (television network) a thousand years ago,” Browne recalled of the origin story, “Delta Burke played me. The initial writing was great, but at that time, everything on TV had to be about teens.”
Needless to say, Browne does not regret that it did not go forward. “Actually,” she said, “I’m thrilled it didn’t get on TV.”
Insert Amory native Sam Haskell, who was at one time Executive Vice President and Worldwide Head of Television and Burke’s talent representative. Haskell and Manchester, famous for her 1978 song, Don’t Cry Out Loud, were friends.
As the story goes, Haskell and Manchester were having dinner one night and Haskell started telling her about the Sweet Potato Queens.
“Melissa got the first book, The Sweet Potato Queen’s Book of Love, and, in her process… she was reading it and started hearing music in her head,” Browne explained. “She called me and said, ‘I want to write a musical based on this.’ That’s always been my dream for (the books). I love staged musicals.”
Browne said she is a fan of them all but counts “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” as her all-time favorite. The show’s playwright, the late Larry L. King, became a friend.
“He said to me once in that Texas accent of his, ‘Tater Queen, if anyone ever offers you a choice between a high-yield oil well and a successful Broadway show, you take that show all day long like it was free drugs, hot sex and the death of an enemy.’”
With no plans for drilling in her immediate future, Browne chose door number two.
Vaughn (My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys) came on to write lyrics. Manchester thought the script itself needed a female writer. She phoned friend Rupert Holmes demanding the name of a one (though, secretly, Holmes himself wanted the job). But Manchester insisted on a woman’s perspective.
“Long story short, it landed back in Holmes’ lap,” Browne told. “He’s just brilliant.”
Browne had caveats for the stage show.
“I knew they had to have conflict. But you can’t say anything bad about (my daughter’s father). If you want a bad relationship, make it be somebody else. And no racial aspect. It’s a Southern story, a Mississippi story. But (the Queens) are the most inclusive. There is no line in the Queendom we don’t cross. We are black, white, rich, poor, young, old, male, female, drunk, sober, married, single – I have the ashes of a dead woman. There is no line we do not cross!”
“It’s a sweet story,” Browne said of the musical. “It’s funny, the songs are hilarious and I couldn’t be happier with it.”
Two years ago, the Theater Under the Stars in Houston, Texas staged a workshop reading, sans costumes and props but with dialogue and songs, for two weeks, part of the process for developing for the stage.
The Bushes, the late George H.W. and Barbara, came to see it. Browne’s Wannabes™ – her most loyal followers – from across the country flew in. Browne was in the audience every single night for the two-week run.
Jackson’s New Stage Theatre Artistic Director Francine Reynolds was there, too.
“I remember hearing about the development of the show and thinking this is something our audiences need to know about,” she recalled. “I saw it and thought that it might be fun for Jackson area audiences to see what audiences in another state saw since it was a show about Jackson events and based on the life of a Mississippian.”
Browne will reprise her role as a nightly audience member here in March.
To offer a critique?
“No! I’m not an actor or a singer or a playwright or director,” she laughed. “I’m there to enjoy it. It’s the first actual production of it ever. There are songs that have been added to it since I have seen (the readings). This will be the first time anyone has been the fully-cooked show. I’m very excited.”
The story begins and ends with a parade in Jackson.
With Browne’s return to the downtown parade this year, Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade where she started, the 66-year-old calls it “perfect timing.”
“A lot of people are coming back (to Jackson) that haven’t been in several years, anxious to rejoin the ‘big’ parade,” she said after a several-year hiatus, serving as the face of Fondren’s Zippity Doo Dah® Parade. “As the whole thing has been since 1982, it’s been a divine, cosmic convergence of things.”
Browne said, in Houston in 2017, people came from all over the country, as they do here for the parade, to see the readings.
“And they flew in – in their feathers, in their rhinestones, in their sequins – and they came to the theater. The crowd every night was split about half and half – people who knew why they were there and people who didn’t. And it was easy to tell who was who! They would come one time then come back all decked out.”
Even if you haven’t read the books, the themes are universal.
“It’s a happy show. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the Sweet Potato Queens. It’s a funny show.”
South Jackson born Browne added, “This is our show.”
“The Sweet Potato Queens is a high-powered musical that tells the story of Jill and her closest friends and how they learn to grab life by the horns and live it on their terms,” New Stage Theatre describes. Ticket sales are steady with one performance already sold out,
Reynolds said, “We will begin rehearsals for the show on February 19 and we will have some exciting news to announce about the cast in the next couple of weeks.”
Season ticket subscribers can purchase discounted tickets for this show.
Appropriate for ages 18 and up, the show runs March 13-24.
The winner of this year’s Patty Peck Honda Doo Dah Day™ New Car Giveaway for a 2019 Honda Civic Sedan LX will be announced outside New Stage on Friday, March 22.