“The mark of a great performer is charisma. Whether it be motion pictures, records, nightclubs or concerts, a superstar possesses a certain magic to make each line or song seem as if it is being performed just to you.”
Few quotes describe Diana Ross better than the one above; that it’s found in the Playbill to her 1976 one-woman Broadway show An Evening With Diana Ross makes it even more appropriate. The singer’s 16-show engagement at The Palace Theatre is one of the unqualified triumphs of her career, arguably as important as other milestones like her film debut in Lady Sings The Blues and historic Central Park concerts in 1983. The musical extravaganza proved Ross could conquer yet another facet of the entertainment industry, the New York legitimate stage; after scoring an Oscar nomination for acting and several Grammy nominations as a vocalist, she won a special Tony Award for this record-breaking stint on The Great White Way.
Fortunately for fans who missed the show on Broadway, Motown later recorded An Evening With Diana Ross at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and released it as a double-LP; the show was also turned into a 90-minute television special which aired in March of 1977. The live album is one of the best of her career; the energy and excitement of the show is captured beautifully, with the singer’s soaring vocals and the boisterous audience response more than making up for the lack of visuals. This is more than just a “greatest hits” concert or a cabaret act; this is a two-act, expertly constructed timeline of both Diana’s career and a tribute to those who paved the way for her. The television special took the “tribute” idea to the next level, with Diana in full makeup portraying legendary singers Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith. Her acting here was justifiably lauded.
All that said, neither the album nor the special can probably compare to the electricity that must have been present during the live shows at the Palace, especially on opening night. That was June 14, 1976; theatres nearby featured hits such as Pippin (at the Imperial), Grease (at the Royale), and The Wiz (at the Majestic), which would end up being Diana’s next motion picture. A Chorus Line was also enjoying a blockbuster run at the Shubert Theatre; several of that musical’s songs were used in Diana’s show, probably marking a rare occasion of such overlap on Broadway. Joining Diana onstage were three mimes (Hayward Coleman, Don McLeod, and Stewart Fischer) and her backing group, The Jones Girls (Shirley, Brenda, and Valorie).
The Jones Girls, it should be mentioned, went on to enjoy success with their 1979 hit “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” and the 1982 release “Nights Over Egypt.” Shirley would hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1986 with “Do You Get Enough Love” not long after Diana herself occupied the same spot with “Missing You.” The relationship between Miss Ross and The Jones Girls was by all accounts an extremely pleasant one; speaking from the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Sessions Stage, Shirley commented: “People say, ‘Was she a diva? Was she…’ Absolutely not. She came to us right after the London tour and said, ‘I want to tell you girls one thing; you are too good to be singing background forever, behind me or anybody else. And you know I change clothes a thousand times in my show, so I’m gonna give you an opportunity to pick a song and sing a song while I do one of my costume changes.’ And she did that. And for the rest of the three years that we were with her, when she went to change clothes, we got a chance to sing ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven.'” That solo spot for the young ladies led to a record contact with Philly soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Other familiar names associated with An Evening With Diana Ross are musical director Gil Askey, who worked with Diana Ross for many years and supervised the music for Lady Sings The Blues, and director Joe Layton. The legendary Layton directed Barbra Streisand in her early, groundbreaking television specials and worked on Broadway hits including The Sound Of Music and George M! (the latter of which brought him a Tony); more than a decade later, he’d work on Diana’s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues TV special. In his book Call Her Miss Ross, write J. Randy Taraborrelli quotes Layton as saying about Evening‘s genesis, “We went through all kinds of emotional drama together. She was upset about her marriage and always in tears. I was upset because my wife had recently died, and also always crying my eyes out. Out of all these sobbing bouts, somehow came creativity.” Interestingly, Layton goes on to discuss Diana’s thirst for independence at this time, something that also undoubtedly added to her drive to make this particular act successful: “Even though she was still recording for Motown, she wanted to split from Berry, and that was very clear. His image of her was something she wanted no part of, so he wasn’t consulted about the show. I’m sure it must have made him crazy, but she was cutting the cord that was around her neck” (331).
Also, note that the program credits “additional material” to the great Bruce Vilanch. Vilanch had previously appeared in a bit scene in Diana’s film Mahogany; he wrote hilariously and lovingly about the experience in a 1999 issue of The Advocate, describing a last-minute script change when Berry Gordy took over directing duties: “So instead of hiring her, I refused to hire her. Mahogany, that is. I had to rewrite the scene on the spot. In fact, Diane and I did it together. Then, because everyone was in a big-ass hurry to get to Rome, I wrote the dialogue in large letters on a piece of wrapping paper that sat on a table in front of me. Diane stood so we could both read the dialogue and play the scene.”
The opening night list of musical numbers is similar to that featured on the eventually-released LP, with a few minor exceptions. Miss Ross performed her then-current single during the show, “One Love In My Lifetime” — but by the time the live album was released, the single had failed to become a major hit for the singer (it reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100) and was left off. Meanwhile, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” is listed as the final musical number performed in Act II; on the album, it follows the Supremes medley. The television special (and later performances on Diana’s tour) also added “Home” from The Wiz, as Diana was by that time preparing to play Dorothy in the film version.
Speaking of The Wiz, perhaps because Diana’s Broadway run fell between the high-profile releases of her second and third films, this achievement tends to be overlooked by both critics and the singer herself. Diana’s Tony Award isn’t always mentioned in lists of her career highlights, and Diana didn’t even discuss the experience in her 1993 memoir, Secrets Of A Sparrow. This is also probably because the New York stint was just one stop on a much larger tour around the globe; Diana traveled for a long time with the Evening show (there are clips from a Japan show on YouTube), so her shows at the Palace might not seem particularly significant to her. However, from an outsider’s perspective, it is significant; An Evening With Diana Ross broke long-standing box-office records at the famed Palace Theatre and, by all accounts, garnered her rave reviews. At the 31st Annual Tony Award ceremony, presenter Tony Randall commented, “I think it’s fair to say that the New York critics simply tossed their hats into the air.” He goes on to quote The New York Times as writing, “This great lady easily held the audience in her neatly sculptured hand.”
Diana Ross appeared at the ceremony, broadcast on ABC in June of 1977, during which she was presented with her special award for An Evening With Diana Ross. In her acceptance speech, Diana said, “The most important part of any show is to acknowledge the absolutely incredible magic that the audience brings to the show. And I’d like to remember to thank them, especially, because they made magic in my show at the Palace.” This is typical of Miss Ross; she generally gives credit to Berry Gordy and/or her fans for her achievements, tending to downplay her own efforts. But as the opening quote of this article stated, there wouldn’t have been any magic to begin with had there not been a such a gifted performer at the center of it all.
Coming soon on The Diana Ross Project — “behind-the-scenes” of An Evening With Diana Ross…