VIDEOS: Five Broadway Songs That Confronted American Audiences On Racism
When you sit in a Broadway theatre these days and see an actor of color performing a song about America's history of racism and the issues that are still prevalent today, it's unlikely there'll be many among you who don't sympathize. On this day when we commemorate the work and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we know our country is far from resolving its racial issues, but we can recognize forward progressions and unified outrage at backward steps.
Attitudes were quite different in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, and even though the average theatre-goer still looked on Broadway musicals as relaxing, mindless fun, there were moments when songwriters risked shocking and angering patrons with discomforting truths.
Here are five moments when some of musical theatre's most notable writers challenged their audiences on racial issues.
Broadway was stuffed with light musical comedies and romantic operettas when SHOW BOAT premiered in 1927. Taking its style from both of those forms, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel depicting the Jim Crow era of Natchez, Mississippi was unlike anything New York theatre had ever seen.
The score's recurring anthem about the mighty, uncaring waterway that runs the south's economy, "Ol' Man River," was song by the hard-working stevedore, Joe, the first realistic and emotionally mature black character written for the American musical stage.
Paul Robeson, who had gained the theatre world's attention for his starring performances in two Eugene O'Neill drama's, ALL GOD'S CHILLUN GOT WINGS and THE EMPEROR JONES, wasn't available when asked to originate the role of Joe, so the assignment went to Jules Bledsoe. But after originating the part in SHOW BOAT'S first London production, playing Joe on Broadway when the musical returned in 1932 and then giving a thrilling and evocative performance of the song in the 1936 film version, "Ol' Man River" became indisputably Robeson's song.
His connection with the ballad grew stronger with numerous concert appearances. As an outspoken political and civil rights activist, Robeson was frequently criticized for being a black man with opinions. As a response, he changed the lyric when singing "Ol' Man River" in concert to make it more of a personal protest anthem.
Though serious stories of black characters started becoming more visible on Broadway after SHOW BOAT, the writers and directors of these stories were predominantly white. All-black revues supplied the rare opportunities for scores by black composers and lyricists to be heard on Broadway.
One such was 1929's HOT CHOCOLATES, with music by Fats Waller and lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf. The score introduced such standards as "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" as well as the controversial "Black and Blue."
Introduced by Edith Wilson, a woman of dark skin, the lyric spoke of her character's loneliness because men are only interested in lighter-skinned black women. She damns her skin as the cause of her unhappiness instead of identifying the bias of others to be the true cause.
Louis Armstrong, who made his Broadway debut in HOT CHOCOLATES, recorded "Black and Blue," omitting the lyrics that specified the singer as a woman, but still emphasizing the advantages of those with lighter skin.
When Irving Berlin grew tired of seeing his songs overwhelmed by grand sets and parades of showgirls when they appeared in editions of the ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, he co-financed the building of The Music Box Theatre, an intimate venue incapable of large productions and small enough so that audiences could clearly understand his lyrics.
The most successful of the revues he penned for that space was 1933's AS THOUSANDS CHEER, a musical newspaper with songs about headlines, comic strips and even the weather forecast. Though generally a lighthearted affair, the evening took a serious turn when shadows of bodies hanging from trees were projected onto a curtain and a headline told of numerous black men being lynched by southern white mobs.
With this introduction, Ethel Waters stunned audiences with her devastating performance of "Suppertime."
In many ways, 1949's SOUTH PACIFIC was a perfect show for post-war America. Audiences were excited to see a new Rodgers and Hammerstein creation that featured Broadway's Mary Martin teaming up with opera star Ezio Pinza in a musical drama set during the recent war, but perhaps they weren't quite prepared for the discomforting moments when Martin's lovable Nellie Forbush faced up to prejudices she was ashamed to have but couldn't seem to release.
For many, that discomfort intensified when William Tabbert's Lt. Cable sang "Carefully Taught," a song about how prejudiced is nurtured into young children. Many advised the authors to cut the song during pre-Broadway tryouts, but Rodgers, Hammerstein and co-bookwriter/director Joshua Logan insisted it was necessary.
When Clifford Odets began adapting his 1937 drama GOLDEN BOY into a 1964 musical for Sammy Davis, Jr., his original story of a young white man who tries to finance his dream of being a professional violinist with his talent for prizefighting was adjusted to one of a young black man who stepped into the ring to pay for medical school, with dreams of treating black patients who were ignored by white doctors.
But after the playwright passed away, William Gibson was brought in and the story was changed to one of a determined black man who boxes as a means of escaping the institutionalized racism that confines him to a ghetto life.