Nat King Cole was a piano prodigy who was performing professionally by the time he was a young teenager and became a defining figure of the art form in his century.
And he died far too young.
March 17 marks the 100th anniversary of Cole’s birth. Playwright Colman Domingo has co-written a musical about the singer that is being performed at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It’s called “Lights Out: Nat King Cole” and stars Dule Hill in the title role.
It’s currently the highest-grossing show ever at the Geffen.
“Lights Out” takes place on the evening of the final airing of Cole’s television show in 1957, having been canceled by NBC. While the action in front of the camera is all upbeat entertainment, the play reveals a much darker and conflicted Cole behind the scenes.
“It was a successful show in terms of having the highest quality of performers on it, having a host who was just phenomenal,” Domingo tells “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes. “The shortcoming was that it could never find a national sponsor. So NBC, his producers and he himself were hemorrhaging money, but they knew they wanted it to last as long as they could because that itself was an act of revolution.”
“If it wasn’t for Nat King Cole, there would not be the many that followed him,” Domingo says.
That conflict between Cole the lighthearted entertainer and Cole the ambitious artist fighting a racist system sits at the center of the show.
Domingo found a touchstone in an interview Cole gave to Ebony magazine in the year after the show’s cancellation in which he asserted, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” in response to the disconnect between the show’s popularity and its inability to find a sponsor.
“It’s a grenade wrapped in a sheet cake,” Domingo says of the play. “It evokes feelings of goodwill, and then we sort of pull the rug out from under you because the reality of Nat King Cole was anything but easy.”