NEW YORK — Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson first appeared onstage before she was even born. Her mother, Vy Higginsen, co-writer of the gospel musical “Mama, I Want to Sing!,” was pregnant with Higginson in 1983 as she performed in the show about a preacher’s daughter who becomes a pop sensation.

When Higginson was a toddler, she waddled backstage during the musical’s international tours, and at the age of 10, she joined its choir for performances at Madison Square Garden. Then as a teenager, she stepped into the lead role of Doris Winter.

“I ended up being a product of my environment,” Higginson said. “Whether I heard the music from the womb or not.”

Now, Higginson, 39, is directing a revival of “Mama, I Want to Sing!,” which is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a nearly three-week run. The performances, also coinciding with Black History Month, will run through March 12 at El Museo’s El Teatro, formerly the Heckscher Theater, where the 1983 musical ran for years in the ’80s.

Higginsen, who created the production with her husband, Ken Wydro, said she could not have predicted that her daughter, as director, would carry on the show’s legacy. But it’s no surprise she did: Her daughter “saw every iteration, saw every singer, every star,” Higginsen said, adding, “Who’s more capable to direct the show at this stage than she is?”

Higginson leaned into her mother as they spoke about the show’s evolution during a recent interview at the Mama Foundation for the Arts in Harlem, an organization created by Higginsen to preserve and promote Black music through free educational programming.

“Mama, I Want to Sing!” is a family affair. The story was inspired by Doris Troy, Higginsen’s older sister, who was a choir girl in her father’s Harlem church and later became a soul singer, known for her 1960s chart hit “Just One Look.” (Troy played the role of her mother in the musical from 1984-98, before her death from emphysema in 2004.) The musical also has deep roots in Harlem, with a fictional Doris finding her voice at Mount Calvary Church and auditioning at the Apollo Theater.

From 1983-91, the musical had more than 2,800 performances at the Heckscher Theater, and Higginsen said she still remembered lifting the chains from the theater, which had previously been shuttered, and scrubbing dirt and dust from the seats. “At first, we didn’t know whether it was going to work, but then the word-of-mouth spread like wildfire.”

The success of “Mama, I Want to Sing!” led to national and international tours, with stops in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Japan and London. Then came the 1990 sequel, about Doris Winter’s marriage and first child, and the 1996 production of “Born to Sing: Mama III,” which followed Doris’ international tour and her teenage daughter’s singing aspirations.

All along, Higginsen said, she was thinking of the show’s legacy. She wanted the next generation to become ambassadors of gospel, jazz and R&B music, starting with her daughter, who has gone from performing onstage to sitting in the director’s chair.

“This story begs to be told in an authentic way,” Higginsen said, “to really pay tribute to the music, to pay tribute to the artists that came before us, and to make sure that people recognize the contribution that African American music has made to the American musical landscape.”

The Rev. Richard Hartley, who plays Rev. Winter in the current production, first joined the show in 1987 as a member of the musical’s church choir, and later took on other roles, including the narrator and the boisterous choir director.

“This is an American institution,” Hartley said, “and to be a part of it — and it’s Black History Month — it’s just so fulfilling.”

To cast the next Doris for the show’s latest iteration, Higginson began a nationwide search last year, but it was unsuccessful. The people who came to audition were overrehearsed, she said, and she craved the vulnerability and authenticity that earlier productions had. (The last version of the show to be performed onstage was a 2013 production of “Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation,” in Japan.)

Then in November, after consulting a colleague who teaches at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, she visited the school on a Tuesday and auditioned 20 students in the hallway.

“People say expect the unexpected,” Higginson said. “I could see that on their face, but that’s exactly what we wanted.”

Faith Cochrane, a 16-year-old junior and vocal major, said she was eating lunch when Higginson arrived. She was nervous, she said, and didn’t hit all of the notes in her audition song, “Amazing Grace.” But Higginson was impressed by her potential, and Cochrane was asked to join the production. She is now one of three teenage performers — the other two are Elise Silva and Asa Sulton — alternating in the role of the young starlet.

“Something that I had to work on was really stepping outside of my comfort zone,” Cochrane said. “But when I did, the response from everyone else was really good and it made me feel better.”

During rehearsals in Harlem recently, Higginson led the Sing Harlem choir, instructing them to stand tall, jive to the rhythm and hit sharp staccato notes. Between scenes, the three teenagers playing Doris giggled and danced, bouncing their shoulders and stomping their feet. And as different performers sang solos, choir members clapped and fanned in approval. Higginson and her mother could feel the spirit of Troy in the room, Higginson said, and she was grateful to breathe life into the gospel musical once again.

“I’ve been in the spotlight for so long,” she added. “The awesome part is to see the flower grow.”

The New York Times

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