Sophisticated Ladies: Origins and inspiration

Natalie Sweet and Yotam Hahn

The Horace Mann Theater Company (HMTC) and Horace Mann Dance Company (HMDC) approached the production of Sophisticated Ladies eager to celebrate the music and talent of Duke Ellington. The original 1981 production featured a predominantly African American cast, and though the school’s production is not as diverse as the original, HMTC and HMDC, along with the Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity office (ICIE) have worked to remain respectful and authentic to the source material.

In order to achieve their goal, however, several adjustments were made to the original production of Sophisticated Ladies. The legacy and celebration of Duke Ellington’s music is still enthusiastically displayed by a tremendous number of talented students and faculty, Dean of Students Dr. Susan Delanty said.

These adjustments were orchestrated by the show’s co-directors Theatre, Dance & Film Studies Department Chair Alison Kolinski and Dance Teacher Denise DiRenzo, Direnzo said. There were also several meetings between HMTC, HMDC, and ICIE, as well as a Sophisticated Ladies open house in January, ICIE Co-Director John Gentile said.

There were numerous steps taken in the process to make the show more inclusive. “We updated some of the concepts and we eliminated the dated material. We also cut the dialogue from the script to make it more of a musical revue,” Kolinski said.

One such revision was the removal of a problematic portrayal of an Asian woman in the number “Drop Me Off in Harlem.”

During their meetings, members of HMTC and HMDC reflected critically with ICIE about how to make Sophisticated Ladies more inclusive and thoughtful, Gentile said.

Some students feel that they were not given enough opportunity to discuss the challenges of the show, however, Kolinski and DiRenzo offered numerous opportunities for students to come in discuss their concerns, DiRenzo said.

Cast member Mikayla Benson (10) wishes that the cast of Sophisticated Ladies had a discussion about any issues in the original show in comparison to the school’s. However, she was extremely impressed by the leadership and inclusivity of the HMTC and HMDC leaders, she said.

Yana Gitelman (10), another cast member, feels that she is in a similar position as Benson, as she was not fully informed about all the issues Sophisticated Ladies may come with, she said. However, she believes that the company leaders did what they could to address any problems, she said.

Sophisticated Ladies comes with the opportunity to learn about different perspectives of productions, such as sorting out any issues that may come with the production choice, ICIE Associate Candice Powell-Caldwell said.

“As a community, we have to ask ourselves what will work, and what won’t,” Powell-Caldwell said. “Everyone who is involved in Sophisticated Ladies has done a fantastic job of answering these questions,” she said.

The meetings were a great example of how departments can intersect to collaborate on tough issues, Gentile said. He was very proud of how the student leaders stepped up to understand the complexities of Sophisticated Ladies.

HMTC co-president Ben Rosenbaum (12) reached out to the Union, the school’s African American, Afro-Latinx, and Afro-Caribbean affinity group, to talk about how Sophisticated Ladies could be made more inclusive for people of color, HMDC co-president Alison DeRose said.

“As leaders of HMTC and HMDC, we feel like the companies are not really representative of the student body, which we realized has been an issue for a while,” DeRose said. “For a show like Sophisticated Ladies, which is really about diversity and inclusivity, there has been a noticeable increase in diversity,” she said.

These efforts by co-directors Denise DiRenzo, Kolinski, and the student leaders, are apparent in the show itself. “Given the circumstances, the seniors who hold positions of power in the HMTC were very concerned with making sure Sophisticated Ladies was a reflection of HMTC’s values,” cast member Jordan Ferdman (10) said.

Administrative Assistant Ennis Smith, an ensemble member and soloist, thinks that any issues raised about the difference in diversity from the original production to the school’s were addressed properly by the school’s production leaders, he said. Moreover, the show is meant to transcend typical boundaries and bring people together, he said.

“The show is not about the racial makeup of the cast,” Smith said. “Rather, the show is about lots and lots of dance, a wonderful collaboration between students and faculty, and people who love Duke Ellington’s music and want to share that love,” he said.

Faculty cast member Pilar Valencia feels that the HMTC embraced the differences of the cast members. “When Ms. Kolinski invited me to sing a musical number, she made sure to ask me to translate and sing one verse in spanish, my native and beloved language. That gesture by the HMTC truly embraced who I am,” Valencia said.

“The number one thing discussed for casting was that anyone can be in Sophisticated Ladies if they rock to the rhythm to the blues, and that certainly drew me into the show,” Benson said.

“Ms. Kolinski and Ms. DiRenzo have done an excellent job as pitching our show as a production that involves everyone,” ensemble member Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said.