Thomas Lennon had been working on a stage adaption of the 1983 film Trading Places for a number of years before director Kenny Leon came aboard. The veteran director played with some ideas and tossed others around, but neither collaborator thought the work was headed in the right direction. It was only when Leon made a suggestion about changing the gender of one of the central characters that Lennon knew the two were onto something.
Based on the John Landis comedy about a stuffy white commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) switching places with a Black con artist, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), as part of a social experiment by a pair of millionaire brothers, Trading Places: The Musical has changed Murphy’s character to a woman. Aneesa Folds of the hip-hop improv troupe Freestyle Love Supreme is now Billie Rae, and Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) takes on Winthorpe. That narrative shift was just the nudge Lennon needed to finish the work, which officially opened at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre over the weekend and runs through June 26.
While Leon joined the team three years ago, actor and writer Lennon—best known best for co-creating Reno 911! and Night at the Museum—has been part of the team even longer. Originally hired by producer Marc Madnick and the Michael Cassel Group to adapt the film, Lennon has always believed the material was ripe for the stage. “There are certain things that just lend themselves to a musical, and the premise is big, almost Shakespearean,” he said in a recent interview. “It does tend to lend itself to people busting out in songs.”
For Leon, the first step with any new project, no matter the genre, is asking, “Why put this onstage, and why now?” He felt that Trading Places had to speak to the current day. “We needed to have a 2022 lens, looking back at the ’80s to see how far we’ve come,” said Leon, a former artistic director of the Alliance who went on to found Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre. “All the differences we have in this country—racially, culturally, politically—if we could trade places with each other for five minutes, how beautiful would this world and this country be?”
He said he sensed immediately what a woman could bring to the Murphy role.
“I was noticing the richness and power and beauty of Black women in America,” said Leon. “As I have watched what they have done the last few years, just in politics, there are some strong women. That story has not been told, about Black women’s contributions to our country.” He said the recasting also brings up “the intersectionality between the challenges that women go through and the challenges Black people are going through.”
Though Folds considers herself a fan of Murphy, she didn’t want to copy his performance. “I am trying to make it my own, not a cardboard copy,” she said. “What I took from him is that he was just unapologetically himself—that’s who the character is and that was my inspiration, to own the room. She’s a bad bitch.”
But while it was important to Leon and Lennon for the show to have a message, they primarily want Trading Places to be a work of entertainment. Racism and classism were obviously a target of the original, and the new one adds sexism to the mix—as Lennon put it, “What do these sinister white guys think a woman is capable of?” But even if the musical may “make you think a bit,” he said, “it’s not preachy. It has 18 toe-tapping numbers as well.” (Said numbers come courtesy of the songwriting team of Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, who wrote the musical First Date.)
While the original movie still has it fans, everyone on the new show’s creative team concedes that it contains some offensively outdated material, including an extended sequence with Aykroyd in blackface. “A lot of it you cannot use,” Lennon said with a laugh. “It’s just of a different era. There is some crazy stuff in the film.” That includes not only the familiar trope of the hooker with a heart of gold but the gratuitous female nudity required of Jamie Lee Curtis and a scene implying interspecies rape. As Lennon put it, “You will not miss Mr. Beeks being locked in a cage with a gorilla.”
Songwriters Zachary and Weiner said they enjoyed the challenge of creating a modern-day version of the film, though it’s still set in 1983, and being able to give more dimension to the leads and supporting roles. The Curtis sex worker role is now a drag chanteuse played by Michael Longoria, and the characters of Mr. Beeks, played by Josh Lamon, and Louis’s fiancée Penelope, played by McKenzie Kurtz, have also been beefed up.
Zachary and Weiner realized that each character could have a distinct musical style. “A character like Billie Rae, given her voice, we could infuse it with a Gloria Gaynor or a Roberta Flack kind of sound,” said Zachary. Accordingly, Billie Rae gets a big ballad at the end of the production, “Not Anymore,” though she also gets to employ her comic chops with “I Don’t Know What (the Fuck is Going On)”—a clever spoof of “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” from “Annie”—as she tries to understand how she ended up in a mansion with a butler tending to her every need.
But the writing team didn’t want to create a musical score that was a mere ’80s pastiche. Shows like that have been done before, they acknowledged, but they wanted to focus mainly on character. “Even though we are doing a comedy that set in the ’80s, we didn’t want to use ’80s music as a laugh or joke,” said Weiner. “Penelope is upper class and white, but she is a woman in a man’s world, always been made to feel that the only thing her life is about is being there for her man. We made her secret dream to be more of a Madonna and to break free of the stifled world she is in.” Indeed, Kurtz’s “The Role I was Born to Play” number is unexpectedly rich.
Fatima Robinson, who choreographed the 2022 Super Bowl half-time show, worked on the project as well, while season Broadway designer Beowulf Boritt handled the sets. With the Alliance serving as a Broadway launchpad for such shows as The Color Purple, Aida, and The Prom, ambitions for Trading Places are surely along the same track.
Indeed, the production has a blue-chip pedigree, starting at the top with Leon, who since his time in Atlanta has been a non-stop presence on Broadway, directing dramas as well as comedies, and taking home a Tony for 2014’s A Raisin in the Sun. So what’s he doing with theatre newbie Lennon, who by his own admission is “real, real silly”?
“In many ways it’s an ideal pairing, with a thoughtful, Tony-winning thinking person and a non-thinking comedy person,” Lennon quipped. “Kenny can make my ridiculousness seem real. I love the combination. As serious as Kenny is, though, he laughs at a lot of things I laugh at.”
No one would suggest that these two should trade places, though.
Jim Farmer (he/him) is editor-at-large for ArtsATL.
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