about the show
Lena Horne was a singer, actress, and activist who brought passion and dignity to every aspect of her life at a time when African American women were given no voice or opportunity of expression. Author James Gavin wrote a biography about Lena Horne, entitled Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, then decided to turn it into a live show. Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Project features storytelling, interviews, rare audio and video, and visual images as well as a live performance of several of Lena Horne’s songs, sung by Mary Wilson and accompanied by a jazz quartet. Songs include “Stormy Weather,” “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Horne left school at age 16 to dance at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. In 1935 she joined the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra and after appearing in the Broadway musical revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in 1939, she joined the well-known white swing band, the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Due to racial prejudices, she was unable to stay or socialize at many of the venues in which the orchestra performed, so she soon parted the band.
At 25 years old, she moved to Hollywood and signed a seven-year contract with MGM studios. The studio released Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky, and Swing Fever within the first six months of her contract. A long run at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel nightclub in New York in 1943 also helped to boost her career. Before Horne, the nightclub did not sign black entertainers.
Featured in Life magazine, she became the highest-paid black entertainer at the time. However, directors had a difficult time casting her because films she performed in needed to be re-edited for states where they could not show black performers. Additionally, she refused to accept parts that stereotyped African-American women.
She faced more adversity by the end of the 1940s. Blacks and whites still could not legally marry and Horne was engaged to white composer Lennie Hayton. The couple eloped and kept the marriage a secret for nearly three years. Tired of prejudice, she became an outspoken member of the leftist group Progressive Citizens of America. Unfortunately, McCarthyism swept through Hollywood and Horne soon found herself blacklisted for her political activities.
The ban eased in the mid-1950s, and Horne returned to the screen in the 1956 comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas. She spent the next several years building her career anew, appearing on shows such as The Perry Como Show, What’s My Line, and The Tonight Show with Steve Allen. She also released one of her best-selling albums, At the Waldorf.
In 1963 Horne temporarily retired from performing and became deeply involved in the civil rights movement for many years. She performed at rallies around the country, including the 1963 March on Washington, on behalf of the NAACP and the National Council for Negro Women. She came out of retirement in 1969 for her film, Death of a Gunfighter. Though she had mended her career, she was soon due for heartache in her personal life.
In 1970 and 1971, Horne’s son, father and brother died. Though she still toured with Tony Bennett in 1973 and 1974 and played Glinda in the 1978 film The Wiz, she took on fewer projects and spent several years mourning.
Broadway and Beyond
In 1981 she made a triumphant return to Broadway with her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The show ran on Broadway for 14 months, toured the United States and abroad, and won a Drama Desk Award®, a Tony Award® and two Grammy Awards® for its soundtrack.
After a lifetime of groundbreaking and memorable performances, she passed away on May 9, 2010, at the age of 92.
Best known as the founding member of The Supremes, Mary Wilson maintains an active solo career as a concert performer, musicians’ rights activist and musical theater performer. Since 1977, Wilson has released:
- Three solo albums
- Five singles
- Two best-selling autobiographies Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together.
In 1988, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her fellow members of The Supremes.Wilson met James Gavin in 2010 a few weeks before Lena Horne died. She met Horne during her days as a Supreme and cited her as one of her role models. She and Gavin hit it off and she said she would love to sing Lena's songs in his show. The show premiered in Los Angeles in 2011.
James Gavin wrote Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne after five years of research and 300 interviews. Before his first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, he had never written anything professionally. Since, he has worked as a freelance author and biographer, writing about jazz and cabaret for over 20 years.