He was the second son of an Alabama preacher, raised amid the joints and dives on the south side of Chicago. He was the first performer of color to be promoted by record companies to a mainstream audience and the first with his own show on national network television. He was a peer of Frank Sinatra, a friend of President John F. Kennedy, and he once visited the Queen of England after a performance. When he died of lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45, Nathaniel Adams Cole was mourned by a diverse legion of fans. While his classic hits from the 1950s -- "Mona Lisa," "The Christmas Song," "Unforgettable" -- remain popular, many people now may be unaware of the singer's origins and his sometimes bumpy road to fame.
"I think people have forgotten the impact he had because he was cut down so early," says John Adams, one of the producers of Unforgettable: the Nat King Cole Story, which comes to the Met for a single performance on Thursday, April 11. "If he had lived as long as Sinatra, I think you would have seen that same kind of outpouring."
The play opens with a reminiscence by an older Nat, reflecting back on his childhood. Using simple devices like eyeglasses or a scarf, the show's star, Monroe Kent III, brings to life some of the singer's family and friends, including his father, the Reverend Coles (young Nathaniel Coles changed his surname to Cole at the age of 15); his first wife, Nadine; and his valet, Sparky Tavares. "Sparky was Nat's valet for years and really was his best friend," Adams says. "In the show, he says the things that Nat won't say."
Cole's songs -- including a dozen hits like "Straighten Up And Fly Right," "Nature Boy" and "Mona Lisa," along with lesser-known tunes -- are woven into the story and used to illustrate episodes or periods of his life. A trio of musicians -- Andre Demps, Edison Herbert and Fumi Tomita -- support Kent on piano, upright bass and electric jazz guitar, recreating the configuration of the original King Cole Trio.
Beyond the music, Adams says the show tries to illustrate some of the events of the singer's life, both good and bad.
"The play does not whitewash what happened to him," Adams says, referring to Cole's experience as a dark-skinned performer during a time when advertisers were notoriously "afraid of the dark," to use Cole's own quip. Despite Cole's popularity with audiences of all colors, his highly rated 1957 television show failed to attract a national sponsor during its run. Earlier, when Cole and his family moved to Hancock Park, an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles, homeowners in the area attempted to enforce restrictive covenants written to exclude African-Americans, among others. When the effort failed, some resorted to more sinister tactics, Adams relates. "They tried to drive him out. When he finally came out and said he wasn't going to move, they burned the word 'nigger' into the lawn."
The details of that story and others related in the show may vary depending on the source, but that shouldn't detract from the legend that is Nat King Cole, says Adams. The show hit the London stage prior to the publication of Daniel Mark Epstein's comprehensive 1999 biography of Cole, and the creators did not have access to private family materials, so they relied on publicly documented sources for the scenes and dialogue.
"The characters' words are things that are part of the public record," Adams says. "It's not fictionalized. After the Epstein biography came out, we added some details and made some changes, especially about the effects of racism in this country." Still, the producers and the star make sure to point out that the show is not simply a tribute concert, but rather a work of musical theater, with a plot linked together by songs.
The show's 150-city North American tour began in Albany, N.Y., nearly two years ago. All across the country, Unforgettable has received strong reviews for its presentation of the music of Nat King Cole, the narrative of his life story and the evocative performance by Kent, an accomplished veteran of the musical theater.
"He's got the facility to slip in and out of these characters," Adams says. "People have said they really believed he's Nat." Both Adams and Kent insist, however, that the performer does not attempt to impersonate Cole. "At the beginning of the tour, Monroe said to me, 'John, tell people I don't do Nat. I invoke and evoke the man,' " Adams explains. "I think that shows the most respect."
Kent played featured roles in the North American touring companies of Dreamgirls and Ain't Misbehavin', the revue of Fats Waller's life in music. In London, he played the role of Nomax in Five Guys Named Moe with Clarke Peters, one of the creators of Unforgettable.
According to Adams, Unforgettable began life as a short musical set by Peters, put together primarily for the entertainment of his fellow performers. "Clarke Peters had a fascination with Nat King Cole and created this small cabaret piece for himself," Adams explains. Encouraged by the response to the piece, Peters and Larrington Walker expanded it to show length and began the show's run at the Fringe, with Peters in the lead role. Eventually, Unforgettable moved up to London's West End; Peters landed the lead role in Chicago, and the producers tapped Kent for Unforgettable's tour of the U.K. and Asia. When Kent returned to the U.S. following the international tour, he and his company, Relavations, joined forces with Adams and Encore Productions to mount the national tour.
"The play ranges over the full experience of the man, both emotionally and in show business," Adams concludes. "This is a man who crossed all boundaries -- race, class and geography. He had both charisma and tremendous warmth. He was the first superstar of color even though he didn't want to be thought of like that. He truly was a breakthrough person."