He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the constant stream of “golden oldies” his parents Ken and Jayne listened to in their West Orange home would one day lead Brian Uranowitz to the Broadway stage.
“They’re such classic songs. Everybody knows ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Mama Said.’ It’s impossible to not love that music.”
The 24-year-old actor will play the son of music pioneer — and Passaic native — Florence Greenberg in Baby It’s You, which opens in previews at the Broadhurst Theater on March 26.
Greenberg was the driving force behind Passaic’s Shirelles, considered the first major “girl group” of the rock and roll era, who performed such Top 10 hits as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Soldier Boy,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Mama Said,” “Foolish Little Girl,” and “Baby, It’s You.” Greenberg later founded Scepter Records, which produced classics like “Louie, Louie,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” the song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that won an Academy Award in 1969.
Greenberg “was a housewife who decided she wanted more,” Uranowitz said. When she died in 1995 at the age of 82, a New York Times obituary quoted her self-appraisal as “a triple anomaly: ‘a white woman who was in a black business and who couldn’t carry a tune.’”
Greenberg’s landsman status provides a little extra naches for the actor.
“It definitely engenders a sense of pride because this woman really did come out of nowhere and created a huge [hit]. The Shirelles was the number one girl group of all time before the Supremes came on the scene. I can relate to the fact that this woman just got bored with her life and decided to make something of it.”
Due to the small cast, Uranowitz plays two roles: Greenberg’s blind son, Stanley, who produced “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and Marvin, a music promoter, based on one of the founders of Cash Box, a music industry trade publication.
Uranowitz began his acting career at the age of six, appearing in productions ranging from Shakespeare to Neil Simon. But unlike many young performers who burn out from repeated exposure, he decided he needed to take a break.
“After I was bar mitzva’d I decided I just wanted to go to high school” and have a normal childhood. “It was weird; I was tutored while I was in Ragtime and it was hard getting back into the regular school scene. I know people who stuck with it since they were kids, but it’s not easy. “
Uranowitz attended the Performers Theater Workshop in Livingston as a child and the acting bug bit him hard. He appeared in Evita at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn and in a traveling tour of A Christmas Carol. He has also worked in television and film, including guest appearances on Law and Order Criminal Intent and the soap opera As the World Turns.
“I think I’ll always love the stage most,” he said. “It has very little to do with the immediate feedback as much as with being able to live through an arc from beginning to middle to end in a linear way. In film and TV, everything is so chopped up; it’s all about scheduling…and it’s hard to just jump in in the middle of a story without being able to live and breathe it with the pieces all together.”
‘A tough cookie’
Playing two characters in Baby It’s You — one with a disability — can be a challenge. “It’s a work in progress right now,” he said in an interview a few weeks prior to the preview performances. “A lot of that will be helped with costumes and wigs and stuff like that. But the characters are so different. One is a young blind kid, who’s a couple of years younger than me, a soft-spoken shy kid with a passion for music. The other is a snarky music producer. I don’t really mix them up. I’m still sort of figuring out each of my characters’ arcs.”
Although he credits the play’s creative team with furnishing a good deal of historical background about Greenberg and the Shirelles, he amended that with his own research — some of which he found shocking given the tenor of the times.
When Greenberg moved to New York to start the record label, he said, “she started working with Luther Dixon, who wrote ‘Sixteen Candles’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ He was African-American and they had a little bit of a love affair. In the ’50s and ’60s that was pretty taboo. That was very surprising to me. She was so ahead of her time.
“If you look at pictures of this woman, you would never in a million years think she was a staple of Motown music,” said Uranowitz. “She just tore her life apart and put it back together again to make it better for herself. She was a tough cookie, but a really amazing woman.”
For more information about the play, visit babyitsyouonbroadway.com.