Stephen Helper was driving his car two years ago with his partner, who had tuned into the SiriusXM blues station, when Bobby Rush’s song “Sue” came over the radio like a gift. Delivering more than just road-worthy entertainment, the tune grabbed the theater pro’s ear and sparked a vision.
“I thought it was hilarious, and I thought it was funky and bluesy, and it had a great, funny story,” Helper said. “I thought, ‘This would be great in a theater.’”
“If I was sitting in a theater and I heard this song, would I be having a good time?” he asked himself. “Yeah, I’d be having a great time!”
Beloved bluesman Bobby Rush of Jackson, Miss., whose two Grammy Award wins in recent years followed a lifetime of performances and more than 400 recordings over seven decades, is now in his late 80s. He is a vital, inspiring connector between blues’ storied past and the artists who will carry it forward. Known as King of the Chitlin Circuit, his colorful, high-energy stage shows and fun, wink-and-nudge songs have earned him countless fans; multiple awards; memberships in the Blues Hall of Fame, Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame; and more.
At the time, the musician’s history was all news to Helper, who knew neither Bobby Rush nor much about blues music as a genre. He did, however, know a ton about theater. The playwright, director and producer who works in both the U.S. and Australia, had co-conceived the smash musical “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” early in his career, and his revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” for Jerome Robbins earned a Tony Award nomination. His many years in Sydney spawned multiple popular productions at the Sydney Opera House. More recently, his “Sign of the Times” opened Off-Broadway days before the COVID-19 lockdowns clipped its run.
Helper’s reaction to Rush’s “Sue” was enough to send him to Wikipedia. “Bobby Rush had quite a life—happening and still going,” he said about his thoughts after reading Rush’s entry. “I also knew that there are very few bluesmen from his generation still alive, let alone as active as he. So, I just then went for it.”
The showman contacted Rush’s manager and started talks about creating a musical.
From Business to Friendship
Bobby Rush, chuckling, told the Mississippi Free Press that he did not take Helper’s proposition seriously at first, prompting a startled, laughing “What?!” from Helper.
“I just thought he was a fan who liked what he heard,” Rush said, as opposed to a writer who would bring his story to theater audiences, or the friend Helper ultimately became. “(After one long visit), something was growing on me with this guy. I don’t know what he did to my soul and heart, but something was happening.”
“We were looking for a ‘business-ship’ out of it, and it comes to be a friendship,” Rush added.
“That friendship is, oh my God, very much two ways,” Helper said, chiming in. “And I am blessed. Deeply blessed.”
Their bond and collaboration resulted in “Slippin’ Through the Cracks: The Musical Journey of Bobby Rush.” With Rush’s songs and Rush and Helper’s “book,” a theatrical term for script, the musical dramatizes the performer’s life from kid to “Funky Old Man,” from sharecropper to blues superstar. It rides atop a whopping 33 songs and delivers that great time Helper envisioned from the start—even in a staged-reading setting.
Rush’s wiliness and resilience in pursuit of his dream becomes a through-line in the musical, starting with his first peek through cracks in a juke-joint wall, too young to enter but thrilled with the music and action inside.
The journey through personal and professional struggles and successes follows Rush, born Emmett Ellis Jr., from his boyhood in Arkansas as pastor’s son to Memphis, Tenn., and then on to Chicago where he threads his way through Jim Crow-era obstacles, takes the stage name Bobby Rush and establishes a fan base touring the Chitlin’ Circuit.
In addition, the musical features a who’s who of blues music, some funny ego battles, a broken marriage, tragic losses in Rush’s life, his move to Mississippi, his tracing roots of enslaved ancestors, a dabble in gospel and linking with Malaco Records. While the musical covers a lot of ground, the content is conveyed in economic vignettes that leave room for full indulgence in Rush’s songs and the stories they, too, convey.
“You should be on a poster for survival,” a character tells Rush at one point in the musical. Survive is just what Rush does, humor and heart intact.
‘Spaghetti on the Wall’
Rush got his first look at the work last fall. Trusting New Stage Theatre Artistic Director Francine Thomas Reynolds as his barometer, he recalled watching her eyes for the truth when he asked, “How’s this guy doing?” Then, he “sat and played possum” during a read-through so folks would think he was not really listening.
“I saw something that I never thought I would see—the greatness of the actors,” Rush said. “It wasn’t the songs that they were singing. It was the plot, it was the plot of the song.”
“I already knew that we would have a problem getting someone to sing like Bobby Rush. I don’t sing well enough for someone to sing like me,” Rush said, a disarming notion that gets laughs in protest.
“He just doesn’t sing like anybody else,” Helper added, jumping in. “So, it’s not somebody you can turn around and imitate. Bobby Rush—he’s just different. As I found out increasingly as we worked, just how special and different.”
New Stage Theatre entered the picture last summer when Helper stopped in to introduce himself. “In listening to them talk about the project, both of them have said it would be good for this to be in Mississippi,” Reynolds told the Mississippi Free Press.
Pandemic-related delays kicked summer 2020’s planned staged-reading down the road, though actors performed a reading in the fall over Zoom. Then, after a mini presentation planned for January became another COVID casualty, “We kind of skipped the reading thing and moved to the workshop process,” Reynolds said. The goal: Work through the script, minus the pressure of performance.
“In these cases, it’s a healthy pressure,” Helper said. “You say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve got. We’re going to deliver it and see if any of the spaghetti sticks to the wall.’”
Cast members, playwright-director Helper, music director Vasti Jackson and choreographer Tiffany Jefferson gathered to work on the script, music and structure, developing and making changes as they went along, Reynolds said.
Staged readings with music this past June 25 and June 26 at New Stage Theatre to invited guests, friends, colleagues and local leaders finally gave the musical the in-person audience it deserved. With minimal setup—15 folding chairs, stands for scripts and still photos projected overhead—but maximal flair honed over nearly three weeks’ rehearsal, it unfolded more like a show. As a bonus, Rush was on hand, too.
From the musical score, vocal artistry and the choreography to the emotional sweep the cast expressed on stage, the performance showcased the sharp skills of the all-Mississippi talent, the entertainment punch of the source material and Helper’s theater bona fides. Audiences lapped it up.
‘This Crack Ain’t Just for Me’
The message Rush wants folks to take away from “Slippin’ Through the Cracks” is this: “If this country boy can do this, you can, too.”
“I’m trying to motivate people, because this crack ain’t just for me. It’s for anybody who works hard and looks farther than the crack, in order not to fall through the crack,” Rush said. “You can’t live long without hope. I still have hope, and I want the people who listen to me, and listen to this crack that I slipped through, to keep hope.
“If you don’t give up in life, or on life or on yourself, you could make it,” Rush said.
Reynolds said she would love to see New Stage organize a full production of the musical but said that doing so would take a lot of investment.
“This is the necessary step, prior to anything like that,” Helper said. “Then, what it really becomes is a matter of money. It’s that simple. … Of course, to have the money, you better prove that you’ve got a good show. And so, we’re here to prove we have a good show, or we have the makings of a great show. And then, we just go from here, whether it’s a production here, which would be great. And, then a production here that leads to more—that’s what we all want.”
For now, Helper’s vision is one step closer to full fruition.