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Music legend Niles Rodgers tries theater

Terrie Greene

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Nile Rodgers, hailed by many in the music industry as one of the best known musician/songwriters and record producers in pop music history, has earned the title pop superstar.

But he’s not into titles and acclaim, he said. It’s all about the music.

Rodgers and Bernard Edwards created the super-group Chic, which hit its 1970’s peak with hits such as “Le Freak” (Warner Bros. best-selling single of all time); and he’s the writer behind the anthem “We Are Family” (recorded by Sister Sledge).

He produced Madonna’s album “Like A Virgin,” the songs “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” by David Bowie, Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” the B-52’s “Cosmic Thing” (which spawned “Love Shack”), Diana Ross’s hit-filled “Diana,” not to mention collaborations with Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel and a roster of other pop and rock luminaries.

Then there are the dozen film compositions, including “Coming to America.”

And that’s only a fraction of his footprint in the industry.

Rodgers’ latest project is the stage musical “DoubleTime,” which has brought him to Montgomery. A collaboration with John Walch, Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s writer-in-residence, the play is part of the Southern Writers’ Project’s Festival of New Plays.

After the play’s 1:30 p.m. concert reading last week Saturday in ASF’s Octagon Theatre, Rodgers will find time for a “Kick Back,” a laid-back discussion with the audience.

He and Walch have spent five years developing “DoubleTime,” a story about a young white playwright trying to tell the story of Leonard Harper. Harper was a real-life Alabama native who became one of the first superstar African American Broadway performers, only to fade into obscurity after his peak in the late 1920’s — a time when he helped establish the careers of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

As the playwright struggles, he’s guided by the tap-dancing spirit of Harper himself.

The play merges the music of Harper’s era with contemporary music Rodgers composed specifically for the production

The play merges the music of Harper’s era with contemporary music Rodgers composed specifically for the production. Walch said that aspect was essential in creating the play.

“We have Nile Rodgers – we don’t want to not have contemporary music,” said Walch, who calls Rodgers “a collaborative genius who has been amazing to work with.”

Rodgers said the years of work the duo has put into “DoubleTime” have paid off.

“It’s flying. It’s soaring,” Rodgers said of the play during a recent phone interview from his home in Connecticut. “It gets better and better. We have been up until the wee hours of the morning. A massive amount of research has gone into this project.

“When you find a figure like Leonard Harper — for all the great things he did, he’s a relatively obscure figure. Once John started to edify me, I got fascinated,” Rodgers said of Harper, who was the only black impresario to bring a Harlem Revue to Broadway. The pair recorded the first demos with the Louis Armstrong Heritage Band, which included quite a few Harper aficionados.

One surprising thing Rodgers learned from his research was that two of his family members were musicians in Harper’s most famous work, the 1929 musical “Hot Chocolates.”

As much success as he’s found in the pop music world, Rodgers, like Harper, has his musical roots in the theater. One of his first was playing in the house band at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and other venues – “pit work,” it was called.

So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to get into theater mode, even after all these years.

“Honestly, when I read John’s first draft, I thought he was such a talented writer, and I liked his concept. It’s a contemporary look at a figure that was important in the Harlem Renaissance,” Rodgers said of Walch’s initial structure. “The last thing I wanted to do was the standard-fare Harlem Renaissance musical. As a composer, how do you out-do Fats Waller?

“I just came up with a clever way of looking at it, gave John my approach and we started. Having written a bazillion songs in my life, I wanted to do something challenging but also rewarding to the public, so people wouldn’t have to work hard to get the story and understand the songs,” he said. “And hopefully, it makes them laugh.”

One of the musical’s songs, “Start Again,” is streaming on Rodgers’ blog, nilerodgers.com/blog/walking-on-planet-c.

“Planet C” refers to Rodgers’ October 2010 prostate cancer diagnosis, which came at a time when, as usual, music was taking center stage in his life.

“The day I was diagnosed, I was going to do a concert in Rome,” he said. “The doctor said, ‘Sit down. I have to tell you something.’ I said, ‘Can you hold that thought? I’ll be back Tuesday.’

“That’s my blessing and my curse. I can’t stop thinking about music.”

That’s part of his life he’s likely to cover in his biography, “Le Freak: The Life and Times of Nile Rodgers,” due in October from Random House.

Rodgers had surgery and, in March, his doctors told him he was cancer-free. He still has his bad days. He was feeling bad about a week before leaving for Montgomery, when the cast was rehearsing the show at New Dramatists Center in New York.

Then, “As soon as the cast started singing, I went, ‘Yes!’” he said. “It’s complicated. Right from the word go, when one of the girls was singing soprano, I felt like a million bucks. Music has that kind of power.”

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