You can read any list of the better-known song titles and start to piece the story together: “Sophisticated Lady,” “Having Myself a Time,” “Foolin’ Myself,” “Hush Now, Don’t Explain,” “No Regrets,” and so on. Music critic Henry Pleasants described Billie Holiday’s voice as being hoarse at the bottom and thinly shrill on top, “with top and bottom never very far apart.” But even at the end of her abbreviated life, when it was ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse, Holiday’s small, shrill, slurring voice, like a broken toy cornet, could convey a range of feelings only hinted at by a song’s lyrics. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
, a biographical music revue on stage at Hattiloo Theatre, is an unflinching portrait of an artist who, from her days as a teenage brothel worker to the time she spent singing with the most revered orchestras of her generation, was defined almost entirely by addiction and pain.
“If we just played this the way it’s written everybody would be depressed,” Lady Day director Emma Crystal says. Even more upbeat numbers like the standard “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” take on new meaning when you consider that Holiday referred to heroin as her “moonlight.” “We had to find all the places where we could be playful,” Crystal says.
Memphis jazz singer Joyce Cobb played Holiday when Lady Day made its regional premiere at Theatre Memphis in 2004 and is reviving the role at Hattiloo. “At first, you’ll hear Joyce’s voice,” Crystal says. “But we worked very hard to pick apart Holiday’s inflection and phrasing. So when you’re looking at Joyce she’ll transform.”