Theater in Manhattan was bristling with Black voices in the early 1970s, but these tended to be heard in smaller spaces like the New Federal Theater, the Negro Ensemble Company and the Urban Arts Corps. Micki Grant’s “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” spent time in such theaters before winding its way to Broadway in 1972, making it the first time a woman had written the book, music and lyrics to a Broadway musical.
The result — four Tony Award nominations, a run of more than two years — was a testament to Grant, a trailblazer in virtually every field she touched. She died on Aug. 21 at 92. But the success of the show also stemmed in part from its image of Black America, one that Grant created through a blend of conviction and calculation.
Just as “Hair” channeled the era’s countercultural passions into a package that (most) staid Broadway theatergoers could handle — Joe Papp, who squired that show to Broadway from his brand-new Public Theater in 1968, described it as “marvelous for middle-aged people” — “Don’t Bother Me” took a cleareyed but rarely confrontational stance at race relations. At one point, the cast members raised clenched fists, which then turned to peace signs.
“I wanted to open eyes but not turn them away,” Grant told me in a 2018 interview about the work, which she described as a conscious divergence from more incendiary pieces by such Black playwrights as Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka. “I wanted to come at it with a soft fist.” (Grant had just come home from the hospital when we met, but was still energetic enough to shave more than a decade off her stated age at the time without raising any suspicions.)
And so the show discussed slavery and slumlords but also Flip Wilson and Archie Bunker, resulting in what the New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes described as “a mixture of a block party and a revival meeting.”
As it happens, Grant was in a rare position to call the shots on these decisions. She had spent several years as a contract performer on a soap opera — one of the first Black actors to do so — playing an attorney, Peggy Nolan, on “Another World.” (She also starred in “Don’t Bother Me.”) She would go on to find success writing advertising jingles, winning a Clio award along the way.
But the advertising and soap opera industries aren’t exactly known for cultivating auteurist voices. Theater gave Grant a chance to write every syllable and every note of “Don’t Bother Me,” which earned her half of the show’s four Tony nominations. (Her frequent collaborator Vinnette Justine Carroll, who became the first Black woman to direct on Broadway, was also nominated.)
It came up blank at the 1973 Tony Awards — “A Little Night Music” and “Pippin” also opened that season — but “Don’t Bother Me” showcased a musical voice equally comfortable with calypso, spoken-word, soul, funk, jazz, and even what could be described as proto-hip-hop. Not to mention gospel, which came to the forefront in “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” and other subsequent shows that Grant wrote or co-wrote.
Dabblings in Black musical idioms were nothing new for Broadway, of course: Cole Porter never met an Afro-Caribbean rhythm he couldn’t use, while Frank Loesser all but trademarked the still common use of a gospel-style roof-raiser to get the crowd agitated near the end of a show. But Grant’s wide range of repurposings was of an altogether different nature, because it drew so heavily from her own background.
This versatility turned her into a go-to lyricist for pre-existing melodies by Eubie Blake (“Eubie!”) but also Harold Arlen (“Sweet & Hot”) and Jacques Brel (“Jacques Brel Blues”), and it also earned her a spot on the all-star writing team of 1978’s “Working” alongside James Taylor, Stephen Schwartz and Mary Rodgers. When I spent long college afternoons listening to published Broadway scores, one particularly fast passage in her “Working” song “Lovin’ Al” had me hitting rewind on the library’s cassette player for a solid half-hour.
Grant, a former national chairwoman of the Actors Equity union’s Equal Opportunity Employment Committee, viewed as her biggest professional disappointment “Phillis,” a 1986 musical about the pioneering Black poet Phillis Wheatley. In a recent interview for American Theatre magazine, published after her death, she blamed the white director for the show’s failure, saying he had no knowledge of or sensitivity to the subject matter.
But Grant bounced back from this, as she had done from the many other setbacks along the way in becoming her own sort of pioneer. “There’s so little time for hatred,” Grant sang almost 50 years ago in the show that earned her a place in history. Her hand was equally capable of clenching tight and relaxing into a peace sign. The fist was soft, but it held considerable force.