Choreographer Camille A. Brown On Translating the Body Language of CABIN IN THE SKY
The word "progressive" has been tossed around a lot lately in discussing the country's presidential primaries, with its meaning perhaps being up for discussion.
The progressiveness of Broadway's musicals can be a dicey topic as well, especially when discussing past shows that attempted to tell stories of the country's diversity. With rare exceptions, the progressively-minded Broadway musicals of the last century's first sixty-five or so years, the ones that tried telling serious stories of the experiences of people beyond our Euro-centric theatre traditions, were written by white people.
So when well-meaning works like SHOW BOAT, PORGY AND BESS, FINIAN'S RAINBOW, FLOWER DRUM SONG and THE KING AND I are considered today, there are aspects that white creators and predominantly white audiences considered open-minded and racially sensitive then which would not fly comfortably with many in the 21st Century.
The progressiveness of the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky, which will receive an Encores! concert mounting next week, is another case to be considered. The focus of the concert series has always been to showcase music and orchestrations from works that, for various reasons, might not be produced in a full-scale revival.
While artistic director Jack Viertel, who is white, knew that Vernon Duke's music was worthy of a full orchestra - particularly since the score includes the jazz standards "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" - he left decisions regarding the cultural sensitivity of John Latouche's lyrics and Lynn Root's book to director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who is black.
"It's not a documentary," Santiago-Hudson says of his approach to the New York Times. "It's not what they did in 1940. That would be ludicrous."
While the director deals with the written text, it is up to choreographer Camille A. Brown to deliver visuals that are true to the era, rather than the way the era was presented in white-controlled entertainment.
Originally produced in 1940, Cabin in the Sky followed Porgy and Bess in celebrating African-American music and dance traditions. The musical tells the story of "Little Joe" Jackson, a charming ne'er-do-well who dies in a saloon brawl and is given six months on earth to prove his worth to the Lord's General (Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis) and his long-suffering wife Petunia (Tony Award winner LaChanze), while resisting the temptations of the Devil's Head Man (Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper). Vernon Duke's score-which features the jazz hit "Taking a Chance on Love"-will be restored to its original glory for Encores!