Entertainment » Theatre

American Idol’s Brian Scott Bagley on his Josephine Baker connection

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 24, 2009

If you're bi-coastal, and your other coast happens to be the banks of the Seine, you might have caught Brian Scott Bagley's performance as Josephine Baker in his piece "Josefiend," which was recently part of "La Gentry de Paris Revue."

However, even if you missed Bagley in Paris, you can catch him this weekend in Jerome Savary's "A La Recherche de Josephine," another Baker-inspired project playing at Montclair State University's Kasser theater through Sunday, Sept. 27. This time, Bagley doesn't play the famous diva--who, like Bagley, performed on the Paris stage--because that honor goes to Nicolle Rochelle.

But Bagley does serve as a choreographer and dancer for the show; and the former student with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has also contributed choreography to another Savary show, "Don Quichotte Contre L'Ange Bleu."

You might remember Bagley from American Idol; he was the "Dancing Janitor" who auditioned in 2005. But for an artist, no work is too humble to contribute to the life experience upon which he draws. Plus, being on American Idol surely can't hurt.

Bagley chatted with EDGE about the usual: art, culture, and cosmic coincidence.

EDGE: You've just choreographed and co-starred in a Paris dance production celebrating Josephine Baker--you played a Baker-inspired character you call "Josefiend"--and now here you are Stateside in production
called "Looking for Josephine," in which Baker is portrayed by Nicolle Rochelle. Is this some sort of cosmic coincidence, or did your turn as "Josefiend" open the door to the current production with Ms. Rochelle?

Brian Scott Bagley: The full cosmic history of me and the amazing Josephine is a pretty long story and a bit unbelievable. Here is the short version:

The summer before I began my studies at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre School, I studied at the Broadway Theatre Project with notables such as Ben Vereen, Debra McWaters (Fosse diciples, if you will), and Jeff Calhoun (producer, director, and choreographer).

That summer at BTP, I began to pen a musical about Josephine Baker. Next, through the journey of looking and finding housing in New York--an amazing feat in itself--I lucked up by having a roommate who introduced me to N'kenge Simpson Hoffman now of Three Mo Divas and "DivaLicious" SHOW, who was preparing to audition for a production about Ms. Baker that would be produced and performed in France.

Amidst my screams of excitement for her (and my excitement because she was auditioning for a show about "my girl" Josephine Baker, not to mention my mind drifting to thought of the possibility of a connection to the show... i.e. "a job"), I asked her if I could coach her dance-wise, The JosieB Way, for the audition. She accepted.

And at an informal audition at the Belvedere Hotel in New York, I met and was hired by Jerome Savary, the creative mind behind "Looking for Josephine," and hence the debut of my American In Paris life.

When the cast of "A la recherche de Josephine" a.k.a. "Looking for Josephine", performed on the same stage that Josephine Baker herself performed on at the Casino de Paris, I met Gentry of Paris, who is a producer and the artistic directrice of "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese."

Through that meeting, I became the choreographer of "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese" (a show with the splendor of the Grande Revue, where Parisian Music-Hall is reborn and rejuvenated by reviving the lost tradition of the sumptuous theatrical song and dance extravaganzas of the 1900s in the traditional style of the Ziegfeld Follies productions and Folies Bergere, with the mix [including] the most beautiful Burlesque strippers in the world.)

The following is a quote from 21 Century Pinups:

"The day that Gentry and I met for the first time to discuss the show and myself as choreographer, we met at the café across the street from the Folies Begere...

"As I read through the script I realized that the show she had written was very nice but missing something. So my imagination started running. I myself had written a theatre piece called 'Josefiend'--a story of a young man who lost his mother and turn he then turns to drugs to soothe his hurt.

Because of the hurt and the drugs, and his mother's adoration for Josephine Baker, he begins to go in and out of personalities; his mother, himself, and Josephine Baker. I saw this as a great opportunity to workshop the Josephine Baker part of my show 'Josefiend'... I never thought that this humble theatre piece when matched with The Gentry de Paris Revue would lead to a journalist calling me 'the new Black Pearl'.

It blows my mind and humbles me as well... I am so thankful for the adventure..."

So that's the short version. "Looking for Josephine" first, and after [that,] "La Gentry de Paris Revue avec Dita Von Teese."

But I'm leaving out a lot of juicy, cosmic Josephine-connecting tidbits out. Like why I slept in the metro the day before the fateful audition that brought me to Paris, the many people and situations that I met in New York who were connected to Joesphine Baker during the time I was waiting for the contract for "Looking for Josephine" to come through, the autographed book about Mrs. Josphine Baker I randomly found the day before I left for Paris...

Not to sound crazy but I'm simply thankful that God and Mrs. Josephine Baker have been looking down on me. I'm living this adventure and it is a blessing.

EDGE: My understanding is that "Looking for Josephine" parallels Baker's career with post-Katrina New Orleans. Does the show celebrate the progress of equality for all over the last 40 years, or is the point more that there's still so much to be done?

Brian Scott Bagley: Yes "Looking for Josephine" does parallels Baker's career with post-Katrina New Orleans.

But it is more a story that tells the story of Jazz history and suggests that inequality is still present in the U.S.

And no, during the show you won't necessarily see a story that describes the progress of equality for all over the last 40 years... but honestly, it can be felt amongst the cast members, who are made up of members who are French, Cuban, and Americans. "Our own little performing UN."

And it's not the point of the show, but yes, there is still much to be done in the way of fighting to ensure equality both in America and France, and maybe several other parts of the world.

The more we push that rock a little, it will move a little more, and more, until it's rolled away. "Looking for Josephine," in its way, is a part of that.

But Mrs. Baker's set an very good example to follow. For example, during her second return to the U.S., she refused to perform in theaters that had segregated seating. And she was successful.

But, of course, there was a backlash in the end [during her] last days in America. Thus, she still had to continue push that rock in her way. And don't get me wrong; I don't want to seem pessimistic, but we can always do more to make it better for each other.

Next: Why the "fiend" in "Josefiend?"


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