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February 19, 2016

Let’s COPE Again, Like We Did Last Century

All right, we all know that GREASE was the longest-running musical of the 1971-72 season and -- at least until A CHORUS LINE came along -- the longest-running Broadway show of all time.

But what was the SECOND-longest-running show of the 1971-72 season?

TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, you’re guessing, figuring that its (oft-criticized) Tony win as Best Musical might have sent it soaring over 1,000 performances or so. And didn’t SUGAR, the musical of SOME LIKE IT HOT, run for a long time?

TWO GENTS did 614 and SUGAR 505, which together was only a bit more than the second-longest-running musical of the 1971-72 season: Micki Grant’s DON’T BOTHER ME, I CAN’T COPE.

If you missed it during its 1,065-performance run, or didn’t catch one of its many road companies or stock tours, you’ll get the chance to see it next weekend at the York Theatre Company’s Music-in-Mufti series.

To be fair, COPE, as Grant likes to abbreviate it, did play Broadway theaters with far fewer seats than the St. James and Majestic where VERONA and SUGAR were plying their wares. Both the Playhouse, where COPE played for two months, and the Edison, where it ran more than two years, were just above the 500-seat minimum that qualifies its tenant as a Broadway production.

Still, the 1,001 performances that COPE did at the Edison at the time made it by far the most successful show at that theater since the venue had been reintroduced as a legitimate playhouse in Oct., 1970. Until COPE moved in, six shows had played the modest 47th Street house and combined could only manage 116 performances – or less than 12 percent of COPE’s run.

Grant received two Tony nominations for Best Book and Score, but she fully admits that the show wasn’t her idea. “It was Vinnette Carroll’s, really. We connected at the Urban Arts Corps when she wanted me to do a musical version of (Irwin Shaw’s 1936 anti-war play) BURY THE DEAD. So I started working on a musical version that I called STEP LIVELY, BOY. One song was ‘Fighting for Pharaoh,’ which came from a line in the play.”

STEP LIVELY, BOY never happened, but it did lead to COPE. “I was writing folk music about what I was observing and feeling, like everybody else at the time, and Vinnette said ‘People have to hear these.’ Like Topsy in UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, it ‘growed.’”

Even the title sprouted from an unlikely circumstance. “An actress at Urban Arts came in one day and told us about an awful experience she’d just seen. She’d actually witnessed a woman smashing into another car, and when she rushed over to help her, the woman just had her head resting on the steering wheel.”

She wasn’t dead. “No,” says Grant, “she was just sitting there and said ‘Don’t bother me; I can’t cope.’ Any time after that at the theater when something potentially difficult was happening, somebody would say ‘Don’t bother me; I can’t cope’ and soon we were all saying it. And one day Vinnette called me and said, ‘You know, that’s the name of our show’ – and I said to her ‘You mean now I’ve got to write a title song to THAT line?’”

The assignment didn’t turn out to be as arduous as Grant had originally assumed. Once again Grant wrote what she was then observing and feeling, and despite some brass-tacks complaints and messages, Grant ameliorated the dour situations by having them set to her perky melody.

Although the show centers on the African-American experience, the title song’s issues of raised rents, unemployment, inflation, useless advice from psychiatrists, higher taxes and, alas, no sex in marriage apply to everybody.

So in 1970, COPE premiered at the Urban Arts Corps and had many ‘70s topics and touchstones in it: Archie Bunker, Bella Abzug and J. Edgar Hoo-ooo-ooo-ver were among the then-household names listed.

As rehearsals began for this Mufti, Grant was still settling on which names should stay and what should be retired. A song about how dangerous Harlem was perceived to be – “perceived to be,” says Grant, raising a don’t-you-believe-it finger -- has happily dated. “I had a lyric in the show about how cab drivers were afraid to drive up there and refuse fares,” she says, “and now when I’m up there I see yellow cabs all over the place pulling up to sidewalk cafés.”

The Urban Arts Corps production received a strong review from The New York Times, but Broadway wasn’t yet on the horizon. “We first took it -- just to do it again, that’s all – to the Lincoln Center Library,” Grant recalls. “When I arrived, I saw all these people there and wondered what was going on.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to Grant that they could have been there for DON’T BOTHER ME, I CAN’T COPE.

Grant eventually became one of the show’s five featured performers, too, although she didn’t set out to be. As the musical evolved, Carroll asked her to take over from an actress who had been playing a role – “because,” recalls Grant, “Vinnette said that nobody sang my songs as well as I.”

That she both wrote and appeared in the show didn’t surprise anyone who knew Grant, who’d been performing and writing since childhood in her native Chicago. “I started writing at eight and got my first copyright at 12 when my church published a bunch of my poems,” she says. “I also was conducting our youth choir when I was 16, too.”

Performing at an early age did teach a valuable lesson. “I was cast in a play at a community center, but I was so much of a diva that the director took the part away from me. I haven’t been a diva since.”

Apparently so – for what producer would endure a diva when sending out a tour of HAVING OUR SAY that was going to be out for two years and play five dozen cities? “Playing Sadie Delany was my all-time favorite acting experience,” she says. “Part of that was of course because of Lizan Mitchell, who played Bessie. “Many people came up to us afterward to ask if we really were sisters,” she says.

When COPE did make it to Broadway on April 19, 1972, Grant was gratified that Walter Kerr in the Times said that “Micki Grant hits you, but she’s hits you fair.” But what pleased her just as much was a woman from Minnesota who saw the show and approached her after the show and said “You cut me, but your incision was clean.”

COPE received Five Tony nominations, including Best Musical. Although it won none, COPE fared better at the Drama Desk Awards, where Grant won both a prize for “Most Promising Lyricist” and “Outstanding Performance.”

Last year, when Playbill did a piece on women composers – and included Grant and COPE – it caught the eye of Jim Morgan, the indefatigable producing artistic director of the York Theatre Company. That led to the current production. “I’m proud that it’s back,” she says.

And the proudest achievement in her multi-decade career? Grant hesitates for a moment, giving the impression that she fully knows what it is but wonders if it would be immodest to say it. Eventually she plunges in: “Winning the Grammy for COPE,” she says. “No woman composer-lyricist of a Broadway show had ever won it before.”

What she doesn’t mention is that at least in this category of “Best Score From an Original Cast Show Album,” Micki Grant and COPE not only beat out TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA and SUGAR, but it also “outran” GREASE, too. See and hear why next week at the York.

         — Peter Filichia



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