Little Girl Blue, a musical inspired by the life of American singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone, opens Off-Broadway March 14 at New World Stages.
The bio-musical, written by and starring Laiona Michelle, takes place in two different concert settings, a decade apart: Act I in New York in April 1968, during the period of riot and racial hostility following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Act II in Switzerland in July 1976, after the performer had based herself in Europe. The musical features some of Simone's best-loved numbers, including "Feeling Good," "I Put a Spell on You," "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," and, of course, the title song "Little Girl Blue."
Little Girl Blue premiered at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2019 and had a summer 2021 run as part of the Goodspeed by the River series. Michelle made her Broadway debut in 2015 in Amazing Grace.
Original director Devanand Janki helms the Off-Broadway run, and the original company of onstage musicians—Kenneth Salters, Saadi Zain, and pianist Mark Fifer—return to accompany Michelle. Fifer also serves as the show's music director and arranger.
Playbill caught up with Michelle to chat about the musical and what inspired her to write it.
When and how did your interest in Nina Simone begin?
Laiona Michelle: My mother use to play Nina Simone’s music in our house and I grew up listening to her. My aunt Bernadine was also a radio DJ and she had hundreds of albums that really opened my world to a wide selection of music. I immediately fell in love with Nina Simone’s sound and song styling. She was unique in her approach to songs that she covered. Her take always turned a song into something more. I believe that is why people actually thought that so many of her covers were written by her. Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand the woman, the activist, the prodigy the way I do today.
What about her made you want to dramatize her life?
LM: Nina is so relevant today. She was a warrior, a civil rights activist who stood at Dr. Martin Luther King’s side. She was often labeled an “Angry Black Woman." I wanted to give Nina’s anger context. I wanted to remind people why she was angry, why she wrote protest songs like "Mississippi Goddamn." Here she was, supposedly a citizen of this country, and yet she and her people had to march and demand human rights in a country that hailed itself the 'Land of the Free.' She wasn’t free in her own country. She was not even a second-class citizen—and she always felt herself under the boot of the white man and those who tried to control her. That spirit, that righteous indignation—her battle with mental health issues, something that in the Black community we still find difficult to talk about—all of this and more made me want to tell her story, to quiet the noise and the voices around her. I wanted to present her to the world in a different way. She was often seen as hard, but she had a soft side. And believe me, there are still those out there that would silence us telling her story. They would rather turn it over to white folks to tell. Well, my feeling is that she belongs to us. She is part of African-American history, and who better to tell her story than someone who has her lived experience, someone who looks like her and wears the same skin as her and understands what it is like to be Young, Gifted and Black and still be denied opportunities.
Prior to beginning work on Little Girl Blue, had you been compared to Nina before?
LM: Yeah, because we are both dark-skinned Black women, tall with similar body structures. We both have low-range voices. Yes, we have a lot of similarities. I guess that is why I feel so at home with her and why when I announced that I was working on this project it wasn’t a leap. I have had people compare us, but I am not doing an imitation of Nina with this project. She’s already a part of me. I simply ask her daily for her permission to step into her shoes, and then I surrender to BEing. I feel her with me now every day. It might sound crazy, but it really isn’t. Her spirit is so strong and her message so powerful. If you listen to her protest songs today, you will swear they were written for this social justice moment we are living in.
Can you share something you learned about her that really stood out or surprised you in your research?
LM: Her love of classical music and her connection to Johann Sebastian Bach was an extraordinary revelation. That is what she always wanted for herself—to be a concert pianist. She was a child prodigy and she felt that her dream was taken from her when she was denied entrance to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She always believed it was because she was Black. That rejection was something that haunted her the rest of her life. That was the thing that I think was surprising and interesting. Jazz was not her first love, though she excelled at the genre. It was not something she gravitated to on her own. She was pushed in that direction, and she made the most of it. Also, Nina was never truly happy being called a jazz musician. If you listen to her arrangements of certain songs, you will notice how she fuses classical music into many of the songs she became famous for.
Is there a moment or a song in the show that is very special to you? Can you share what it is and what it means to you?
LM: There are several moments that feel truly significant to me. One moment in particular is when I sing the song that I wrote with my musical director, Mark Fifer, called "Angry Black Woman." This past year and a half has been tremendously difficult trying to secure the rights to tell Nina’s story. Many people (who will remain nameless) tried to stop this show from moving forward. Like Nina, I turned my frustration and anger into something creative, and made good on it. My song, "Angry Black Woman," was born and is in honor of Nina Simone and what she stood for.
The production's all-female, BIPOC design team includes scenic designer Shoko Kambura, costume designer Ari Fulton, lighting designer Dawn Chiang, sound designer Twi McCallum, and wig designer Earon Nealey. Casting is by Jason Styres/The Casting Collaborative. Ernie Fimbres serves as production stage manager. Production management is by MZQ Productions, and general management is by Lisa Dozier/LDK Productions.
Rashad V. Chambers is the show's lead producer. Chambers is currently represented on Broadway with The Music Man and has been co-producer on Ain't Too Proud; Caroline, or Change; American Son; Betrayal; and The Inheritance.