by Mo Brady
“I (Who Have Nothing)” is one of the most recorded popular songs of the 1960s. It entered the American pop canon with a recording featuring singer Ben E. King, and was taken on by artists ranging from Joe Cocker to Liza Minnelli.
However, the first time actor John Edwards ever heard the song was not one of these notable recordings. Like many musical theatre fans, he first heard the song on the original cast album of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. The show debuted in 1995 featuring a cast of nine, including Dear Evan Hansen star Michael Park. Among the dozens of beloved rock and roll songs included in the show are “Love Potion #9,” “On Broadway,” and “I’m a Woman.”
This summer, John Edwards joins a cast of nine in the first New York City revival of the show since its original production. A veteran of Broadway’s Jersey Boys and the national tour of Hairspray, he is also a member of the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir. While those shows are based on popular music, Smokey Joe’s Cafe marks his first foray into singing revue.
“Although Jersey Boys was a lot of work, this show is way more demanding physically and vocally,” notes Edwards. “Unlike a book musical, we don’t have the luxury of scenes with dialogue. It’s literally hit after hit after hit, during which you have to connect, engage an audience, tell a story, all while making it look seamless and effortless.”
Edwards enjoys this kind of fast-paced performance: “To me, it’s a lot of fun. It keeps it exciting and makes it feel a workout at times. By the end of the show, I feel like I have just done a marathon. It’s how I imagine Beyoncé must feel after doing a concert.”
As a part of the show’s quartet with Dwayne Cooper, Jelani Remy and Kyle Taylor Parker, Edwards sings songs like “Young Blood,” “Keep On Rollin’” and “Poison Ivy.” However, his moment to shine comes late in Act II when he takes the stage alone to perform “I (Who Have Nothing).”
On the original cast recording of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the song was recorded by Victor Trent Cook who also originated roles in Broadway’s Starmites and Street Corner Symphony. “Listening to that album, the lyrics are so honest, fun and embedded with so much rich imagery,” says Edwards. “The music is so lit, you can’t help but feel it in your body. It makes you want to dance and sing.”
Performing pop standards on a musical theatre stage requires a delicate balance. An actor must create their own unique interpretation of the song’s vocal stylings and story. However, in order to do so the actor must be aware of the existing renditions of the song that made the song famous with audiences.
Prior to working on this revival, Edwards listened to many different versions of “I (Who Have Nothing).” While drawing inspiration from the Tom Jones and Linda Jones versions, the one that inspired him the most was by Dame Shirley Bassey. “I just love her tone and how strong, resonate and full of passion her voice is,” says Edwards. “Her interpretation hits me in the gut the most and felt familiar.”
In rehearsal, Edwards build his own set of circumstances to perform the song under, using the song beforehand (“Spanish Harlem” featuring Dionne D. Figgins and Jelani Remy) as inspiration. “Story-wise, when the song starts, I see my friends Jelani and Dionne, newly coupled up full of hope and happiness,” says Edwards. “While they are at the beginning of a new relationship, I’m at the end of mine, begging and pleading for my partner not to leave.”
Since those circumstances are never directly related to the audience, Edwards infuses them with his own life experience. “When it comes to performing the song, I am definitely drawing on a couple of personal moments of great loss from my own life’s journey. I start in a space where it’s just God and myself and then it blossoms and expands from there. It is the most vulnerable I feel in the entire show. It’s also the most therapeutic moment for me.”
“It truly is a testament to the creative brilliance of songwriting geniuses Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,” concludes Edwards. “I simply get the chance to tell the stories using my own voice colored by my own experiences.”