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How Harlem Got Its Groove Back

Can Harlem's future be built on its history? George C. Wolfe, whose Harlem Song just opened at the Apollo complete with tourist-friendly marketing plan, is the latest to make the attempt. But, as always, not without controversy.


Wolfe at the door: George C. Wolfe at the Apollo's backstage courtyard.  

About four miles south of the Apollo Theatre, home of the new musical Harlem Song, George C. Wolfe, the show's creator, is sitting in his softly lit second-floor office at the Public Theater getting ready to go to a rehearsal. It is a steamy summer afternoon near the end of June, but Wolfe, the Tony-winning writer, director, and producer, exhibits no signs that he is wilting from the heat of the day or the pressure of opening a new show.

Instead of obsessing, the slim, loose-limbed Wolfe is doing one of the things he does best: telling stories, stories about putting Harlem Song together. "Oh, God, I had this open call for the show that started at 10:30 in the morning and didn't finish until 10 at night. For close to twelve hours, we had people lined up to dance and sing. It was astonishing. I found one woman so intriguing and really moving," he says, shifting in his chair like a nervous teenager.

"She came out onstage, dressed very nicely, and she said, 'I've never done anything like this before.' She sang a song, and it was clear she was not a performer. And I was wondering, did she sneak away to do this? Did her children know she was coming? Did her husband know? Did she come with her girlfriend? I just love the fact that she did it."

Then he tells the story of an Asian woman at the audition who walked out onstage and sang "Precious Lord." "Her performance was filled with these gospel riffs and the whole thing. And she didn't speak a word of English. It was just so wonderful."

One reason Wolfe isn't feeling the pressure is that he's handled it before. He's had ten shows on Broadway in the past ten years, including (along with a couple of flops) such diverse hits as Topdog/Underdog, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Bring in 'da Noise Bring in 'da Funk, and Angels in America. But, exuberance notwithstanding, Harlem Song, in its first week of previews, is the biggest challenge he's faced in years. It is the first time in the Apollo's history that it will be home to a show with an open-ended run. Harlem Song is scheduled for seven performances a week, three on Saturdays, two on Sundays, and two on Mondays.

Raising the stakes, Wolfe has chosen to tell the social, cultural, and by extension the political history of Harlem from the Roaring Twenties to the present within the confines of a 90-minute musical revue that is striving for the broadest possible appeal. "I know there's going to be criticism," Wolfe says equably. "There are a lot of people who believe they own the history, the mythology of Harlem. You know, they believe it's their story. But I have to tell the stories that intrigue me. The piece is about the energy of the day and, ultimately, about the regenerative power of community. That gave me my clues about what I needed to do."

This is not a typical Broadway or Off-Broadway opening -- in fact, the show is, in a very real way, about the future of Harlem. And it carries with it the hopes and expectations of the community. "This is not just about Harlem Song or the Apollo," says Derek Johnson, a Harlem resident and former AOL Time Warner executive who left his corporate post to head the Apollo Foundation and to direct the renovation and (he hopes) the resurgence of the forlorn landmark. "This can be a transforming, catalytic event for the community that will have great spillover effect for all of the other businesses."

Harlem Song comes at a critical point in Harlem's still-nascent resurgence. After almost ten years of significant capital investment in residential and commercial projects, the community is at a kind of crossroads. Five years ago, Harlem, which has about the same population as Vermont, had no supermarket, no video store, no place to get a salad at lunchtime, buy a television, or go to the movies. Private investment was kept away for years by Harlem's political cronyism. "But that's all changed dramatically," says developer Bruce Ratner, head of Forest City Ratner, which is completing a 300,000-square-foot retail and office building on 125th and Lenox Avenue called Harlem Center. "And you have to give the credit to Governor Pataki. You wouldn't have expected it given that there's not a lot of Republican votes uptown. But he and his people took the politics out of what was being done up there."

Then a Pathmark supermarket, a Blockbuster video store, movie theaters, a mall, and a variety of other retail outlets opened up. And now that the path has been cleared, there are at least a dozen new commercial developments under way. At the north end of Central Park will be a 220,000-square-foot cultural and office complex slated to house the corporate headquarters of Edison Schools and the Museum for African Art.

Gotham Plaza on 125th Street is due to open in a matter of weeks with its own payload of chains and national brands. On 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, in what used to be Smalls' Paradise, the Reverend Calvin Butts and the Abyssinian Development Corporation are building a new home for the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a successful public school started by the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Over on the east end of 125th Street, Potamkin has planned an auto mall that will fill three blocks from 125th to 128th. There's also Gateway Plaza, a retail center on 125th near Lexington; as well as the Hue-Man Bookstore, at 125th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, specializing in black history and culture, due to open in a few weeks. And lest you think the picture seems somehow incomplete, Harlem already has a Starbucks.

But retail development has its limits, particularly on 125th Street, which will, from river to river, very shortly be almost unrecognizable from what it was a few years ago. Consequently, people are now starting to look at the future, at the next step. And that is where the opening of Harlem Song and the $54 million renovation of the Apollo Theatre are expected by many people to play a crucial role.

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