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Capathia Jenkins may not always have the biggest part in a musical, but this big-voiced diva only needs one number to stop the show. The actress first burst onto the Broadway scene in 1999 in The Civil War and soon found herself center stage in Caroline, or Change and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. In the latter, Jenkins brought the audience to hysterics with the memorable comic anthem “Stop the Show.” Now, Jenkins is back on the boards as Medda Larkin, the vaudeville star who befriends Jack Kelly and his comrades in Disney’s Newsies. For the second time, Jenkins found herself blessed with with a showstopping number written especially for her. Below, she recalls the lucky turn of events that led to two award-winning composer/lyricist teams crafting songs around her talent.
Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me closed on Broadway in 2007, but I can’t tell you how many times in the last five years people have approached me saying, “I loved that song” or “I listen to that song in my car.” The song they are referring to is “Stop the Show,” a catchy 11 o’clock number by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, in which the refrain includes the line “let a big black lady stop the show.” And like my solo “That’s Rich” in Newsies, the song was crafted especially for me and my abilities to give me a special moment with the audience.
Interestingly, right around the time that Marc and Scott contacted me with “Stop the Show,” I had just had a conversation with my agent about how I was over the whole scenario of a black actress coming on stage to sing an obligatory gospel number. I really didn’t want to do that anymore. Shortly after that, Marc Shaiman called and said, “Listen, Scott and I have written this thing for you. We know you have a sense of humor, so can I just send it and you tell me what you think?” It was making fun of the very thing I had been complaining about, and at the same time doing that thing! It became this magical moment for me every night during the run of Fame Becomes Me and an amazing time in my career. It was a real, real gift.
Last fall, my agent called and said, “They want to see you for Newsies.” I said, “Me? What am I going to do in Newsies?!” I knew it played at Paper Mill Playhouse, and I had seen the cast perform on The View; I remember sitting in my living room with my cup of coffee thinking, “This is like an old time musical. They really got this right.” So, they sent me the sides for Medda Larkin, and at the time, her song was the one the Bowery Beauties sing in the show now. When I booked it, I had no idea they were going to write a new song for my character.
Shortly before the first day of rehearsal, I got an MP3 from the music team saying, “This is what we’ve come up with. We just want you to listen to it, get a little familiar with it and when you get to rehearsal, we’ll work on it.” The song was “That’s Rich,” and the very first day, I walked into a room with music supervisor Michael Kosarin, conductor Mark Hummell, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman around a piano, and we began.
Again, I will use the word “gift,” because this collaboration felt like a gift to me. How often does an Oscar-winning composer shape a song around what you bring to a role? In this business, actors come in and have to do what’s there. You have to fit yourself as a square peg into a round hole, so it’s much more rewarding when someone is building something around you. I felt honored and grateful. When I think about my career, I am this little black girl from Brooklyn who had this dream to sing on a Broadway stage and I get to do it.
I like to say that Medda has friends in high places and probably a few friends in low places. She is smart, she is a businesswoman and she has a sweet spot in her heart for Jack Kelly and the boys, but when she gets to sing “That’s Rich,” it’s all about her—her sense of humor, the play on words in the song, and how she has this guy who doesn’t appreciate who she is. I love the sassiness of Medda, and her intellect.
I love any kind of double entendre because I am one of those singers who always leads with the lyric. Lyrics are the strongest tool I have onstage, and Jack Feldman’s words are delicious words to bite into. [Director] Jeff Calhoun and [choreographer] Chris Gattelli told me to come downstage and work the footlights. I was like, “Okay, you don’t have to tell me twice!” I love having the kind of role where I get to step up and perform just for the audience. Luckily, I’ve now been blessed to have it twice.