Micki Grant, Groundbreaking Broadway Composer, Dies at 92

New York Times - Thu Aug 26 15:57

With “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” she became the first woman to write the book, music and lyrics of a Broadway musical.

Micki Grant in 2018. Her Broadway show “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope" received four Tony nominations, including for best musical.
Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Micki Grant, who in the early 1970s became the first woman to write the book, music and lyrics of a Broadway musical, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” a soulful, spirited exploration of Black life, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 92.

Her death, at Mount Sinai Morningside hospital, was announced by Joan Allen, a family spokeswoman.

Ms. Grant, an actress, composer, playwright and musician, had developed “Don’t Bother Me” for two years with the director Vinnette Carroll, taking it to small theaters in New York, Philadelphia and Washington before opening on Broadway in April 1972.

She would also be known for her work on another Broadway musical, “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” and for her seven years on the NBC soap opera “Another World.”

Set in New York City, “Don’t Bother Me” explored topics like ghetto life, Black power, feminism and student protests with an all-Black cast performing songs — all by Ms. Grant — that drew from rock, jazz, funk, blues calypso and other musical genres.

Ms. Grant recalled in 2018 that she and Ms. Carroll had wanted audiences of the musical to recognize the similarities among races, not the differences.

“And I think that’s expressed when you find out in the end that the audience is willing to reach out and take someone’s hand,” she said in an interview with The New York Amsterdam News. “Some people in the audience never held the hand of a person of a different race before, and all of the sudden, they’re holding another person’s hand.”

The musical got rave reviews, including one from Clive Barnes of The New York Times, who wrote: “It is the unexpected that is the most delightful. Last night at the Playhouse Theater a new musical came clapping, stomping and stamping in. It is fresh, fun and Black.”

The show received Tony nominations for best musical, best original score, best book (also by Ms. Grant) and best direction. It won a Grammy for best musical theater album, making Ms. Grant the first female composer to win in that category.

“Don’t Bother Me” was revived in 2016 as a concert performance by the York Theater Company in Manhattan and two years later by the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center, directed by Savion Glover.


Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

James Morgan, York’s producing artistic director, said in a phone interview that Ms. Grant had “wanted a say in everything and would say, ‘No, that’s not how that goes.’ I’d tell her, ‘We want this to be your version of the show.’”

He had been hoping to stage a full Off Broadway production of “Don’t Bother Me,” he said, but couldn’t raise the money. “I so wanted it for her, because there’s still a big audience for it,” he said.

Ms. Grant was born Minnie Louise Perkins on June 30, 1929, in Chicago to Oscar and Gussie (Cobbins) Perkins. Her father was a barber and a self-taught pianist, her mother, a saleswoman for Stanley Home Products.

Minnie was smitten by theater and music at a young age. At 8 she played the Spirit of Spring, touching flowers to bring them to life, in a community center production. She began taking piano and double-bass lessons at about the same age.

And, she recalled in an interview with The Times in 1972: “I was busy writing poetry and walking around the house reciting it. My family always listened and said what nice poetry it was.”

Ms. Grant began writing music at 14 or 15 and acting in community theater at 18. She studied at the Chicago School of Music and later attended the University of Illinois, Chicago.

But one semester shy of graduating, she left to perform in Los Angeles, where, in 1961, she appeared in a musical revue, “Fly Blackbird,” a social satire about the evils of segregation. She moved with the show to its Off Broadway production in 1962.

By then, she had changed her name to Micki.

Ms. Grant made her Broadway debut a year later in a supporting role in “Tambourines to Glory,” a short-lived “gospel singing play” — written by the poet Langston Hughes with music by Jobe Huntley — about two female street preachers in Harlem. It also starred Robert Guillaume and Louis Gossett Jr. A year later she appeared in a revival of Marc Blitzstein’s musical play “The Cradle Will Rock,” set in 1937 during the Great Depression.

She turned to television in 1965, beginning a seven-year run on “Another World” playing a secretary-turned-lawyer, Peggy Nolan. She is believed to have been the first Black contract player in soaps. She later had roles in the soap operas “Guiding Light,” “Edge of Night” and “All My Children.”


Credit...Fred Hermansky/NBC

Casey Childs, the founder of the Primary Stages Company in New York, recalled directing her in one soap opera episode. “She was an absolutely lovely actress, who understood the need on a soap to move quickly and make fast choices,” he said in an interview.

During her long run on “Another World,” Ms. Grant was building a theatrical legacy with Ms. Carroll, who in 1967 founded the Urban Arts Corps to provide a showcase for Black and Puerto Rican performers.

They put together the first production of “Don’t Bother Me” in 1970 at the company’s theater on West 20th Street in Manhattan. Ms. Grant also wrote the music and lyrics for a song and dance version of the Irwin Shaw novel “Bury the Dead” and for a children’s show called “Croesus and the Witch.”

Working with Ms. Carroll, she said, was a “magical” experience.

“It all came together so perfectly,” Ms. Grant told American Theater magazine in an interview this year. “It was a fortunate meeting between us: I needed somewhere to present my work, and she needed the new work to present because of who she was — having original works brought out her creativity, rather than trying to repeat something that was already done.”

The two women also collaborated on “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” an acclaimed gospel-infused musical that opened on Broadway in 1976 and ran for 429 performances. Ms. Carroll wrote the book, and music and lyrics were by Alex Bradford, with additional songs by Ms. Grant.

Two years later, Ms. Grant was one of the five songwriters behind the musical “Working,” which was based on the writer Studs Terkel’s book of interviews with everyday people about their jobs. The group was nominated for a Tony for best original score.

In one of Ms. Grant’s songs in “Working,” a woman laments: “If I could’ve done what I could’ve done/I could’ve done big things./With some luck to do what I wanted to do/I would’ve done big things./Swam a few rivers/Climbed a few hills/Paid all my bills.”

She returned to Broadway one last time, with a musical, “It’s So Nice to Be Civilized” (1980), which closed after eight performances.

Her other credits include the English-language lyrics to songs in “Jacques Brel Blues,” which debuted in East Hampton, N.Y., in 1988, and “Don’t Underestimate a Nut,” a musical based on the life of George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist who promoted the cultivation of peanuts. It was commissioned by a children’s theater in Omaha, Neb., in 1994.

In the late 1990s, Ms. Grant spent two years with Lizan Mitchell on a tour of the United States and South Africa as they played the centenarian Delany sisters in “Having Our Say,” Emily Mann’s Tony Award-winning play.

Ms. Grant, who lived in Manhattan, had no immediate survivors. Her marriages to Milton Grant and Ray McCutcheon ended in divorce.

When Encores! revived “Don’t Bother Me,” Ms. Grant, reflecting on its creation, said that her and Ms. Carroll’s goal had not been to produce an incendiary musical about the difficulties faced by Black people in America.

“There was a lot of angry theater out there at the time, especially in the Black community — Bullins, Jones,” she said, referring to the playwrights Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones, who became known as Amiri Baraka. “I wanted to come at it with a soft fist. I wanted to open eyes but not turn eyes away.”