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African American Musicals

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AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSICALS (1898-1920)

Fortunately for American Musical Theater, many of the black artists who had been honing their craft in vaudeville and black minstrelsy began to turn their talents to musical comedy.

1898—Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk
Clorindy was the first black musical to make it to Broadway. It was not actually in a theater, it was presented on the roof garden of the Casino Theater (roof gardens were outdoor nightclubs on the roofs of many theaters—very popular in the summertime). The roof gardens provided a venue for Broadway producers to try out new talent before putting the performer in a Broadway show. Will Marion Cook, one of the most famous black composers of the time, conceived the show.

In essence, he tricked Edward Rice (Evangeline—1874—1st musical comedy with an original score) into presenting the show on his roof garden by sneaking into a rehearsal and convincing the conductor of the orchestra to play his music. Cook placed his performers on stage and 26 of the finest black voices in America launched into a song that resonated off the rooftop. They were hired. On opening night there were 50 people in the audience at the beginning of the show and a packed house by the end of the first number. Broadway theater patrons heard the voices coming off the roof as they were leaving the theaters on the streets below and flocked to the roof garden. The show seems to have been more of a revue format with a very loose story that centered on the dance of the cakewalk. A black musical would not actually be seen in a major Broadway theater until 1903, when Williams and Walker presented In Dahomey.

The arrival of the Coon Song on Broadway around 1900 renewed the public interest in African-American material. The adoption of the term Coon songs was based on a total misinterpretation by white audiences. Ernest Hogan, a black composer and lyricist, wrote a song called “All Coons Are Alike to Me.” The song was about a beautiful black woman who is in love with 2 men and is trying to decide which one to choose. The white public ignored the true meaning of the lyrics and just paid attention to the title. A whole new genre of songs that carried on the negative stereotypes and propaganda of minstrelsy was born. Coon songs soon exploited every conceivable black characteristic, real or imagined, for its comic possibilities. African-American aspirations to a place in society, food preferences, the imagined inclination for crime, and gambling all were exploited. The final insult was a number of songs where there was an imagined desire by all African Americans to become white as in the song, She's Gettin' Mo' Like The White Folks Every Day. Coon songs were generally ragtime numbers written both by black and white composers that appeared in Broadway shows, vaudeville and burlesque. White women who became known a “coon shouters” often sang the songs.

Many African-American artists became determined to circumvent the continued negative effects of these songs and began to focus on musical comedy as a means to this end.

There were basically 2 schools of black musical theater at the end of the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s.
1. There were those African-American artists who believed that black musicals should try and outdo white musicals in both sophistication and content. They felt that the stereotypes should be refuted and the real persona of the black population should be portrayed (an intellectual, creative and militant approach).
2. There were also black artists who believed that African-Americans should work within established stereotypes in order to modify and change them. They felt that they could use these stereotypes to base their art on their own experiences and let their artistic endeavors reflect the soul of black people. (an intellectual, creative and more passive approach)

2 teams of writers and performers basically represent these 2 schools.

Bob Cole and Rosamund Johnson represented the first school.
Cole was a college graduate who longed for a life in theater. He got his theater training on the road with a black theater repertory company and finally landed in a black minstrel company writing songs. When he approached the white producers with the request for a raise, they refused. Cole left with his music and they had him arrested for theft. The court ruled in favor of the white producers.

Cole began presenting his songs and plays to white producers in New York. After several degrading experiences, he decided to form his own producing company.

His first show was A Trip to Coontown (1893), which played off of the title of the white musical that opened a few years earlier called A Trip to Chinatown. (musical comedy known for bringing more focus to women---Loie Fuller and skirt dancing). A Trip to Coontown used the show within a show format and featured not only black talent, but also Hispanic. The show was just marginally on Broadway and was presented in a run down theater, but still managed to turn a profit. White producers took notice.

Cole then formed a partnership with a classically trained musician from Florida named Rosamund Johnson. Johnson’s brother James was also briefly part of the team. They formed a vaudeville act in order to survive while they wrote musical comedies. Their act was very sophisticated, with Rosamund at the piano and Bob Cole singing the songs that the two had written. They made it clear to booking agents that there would be no shuffling, no black face and no coon songs in their act. During this time they wrote songs for white musicals. The most famous of these was used in 2 musicals and was called “Under the Bamboo Tree.”

They had 2 very successful Broadway shows, which they wrote, produced and starred in.

The first came in 1907 and was called The Shoo Fly Regiment. This was a story based on brave black soldiers of the Spanish American War. These soldiers were educated and patriotic. The show also included love scenes, which had been taboo in black musicals up until that time. Cole and Johnson refused to bow to African-American stereotypes.

Their second major hit came in 1909 and was called The Red Moon. Cole and Johnson had spent time on an Indian reservation during a tour with their vaudeville act. They learned about Indian folklore and music and vowed to write a musical that embraced these forms.

The Red Moon was symbolic in that it was considered a bad luck omen in African-American tradition and a call to war in Indian folklore.

The story is about a young girl named Minnehaha who is 1/2 black and 1/2 Indian. Her Indian father Chief Lowdog has abandoned her and her mother, but later returns and kidnaps her, escaping to the reservation. The story ensues as her boyfriend tries to rescue her and finally all are reunited, including Mom and Chief Lowdog. The show incorporated Indian and African-American song and dance and was a success on Broadway and on tour.

As black musicals began to wane, Cole and Johnson returned to vaudeville.

The comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker, along with their composer, Will Marion Cook (Clorindy), represented the second school.

Bert Williams was a fair skinned immigrant from the West Indies, who met George Walker in California, where the 2 formed a vaudeville act. They were unsuccessful until Walker convinced Williams to black up. Walker was the quick talking dandy and Williams was the clown. Their act, although based on minstrel stereotypes was artistically superior to most vaudeville acts and they soon became famous. They were brought to New York to save an ailing Victor Herbert show. There was skepticism as to whether their ragtime numbers could be inserted into a Victor Herbert operetta, but they worked with the orchestra tirelessly and had stunning results. They had made a name for themselves on Broadway in a surprising venue, an operetta.

They began to refine their act, giving it a formal structure ---they added more dancing, particularly in the form of the cakewalk, and Williams developed his clown into both a funny and tragic figure—losing at poker, falling in the lake trying to fish. He adopted the song “I’m a Jonah Man,” based on the Bible Character.

The 2 met Will Marion Cook in New York and the 3 began to write a series of musicals called the back to Africa musicals.

The first came in 1903 (same year as Babes in Toyland). It was called In Dahomey. Like Cole and Johnson, Williams and Walker were very observant of life. They had met native Dahomeans in California. White producers had planned an exhibit of native African Dahomena. When their ship was delayed, the producers hired black performers to take their place. Williams and Walker had been among these impersonators. When the ship finally arrived, Williams and Walker spent time with the Dahomeans, learning of their country and their culture. This experience provided them with the inspiration for In Dahomey.

In Dahomey was basically about a man who hires 2 men named Rareback Pinkerton and Shylock Homestead (Parody in the names ---- Williams and Walker played these roles) to recover his stolen property. When they fail, the employer manages to find a pot of gold and takes everyone to Dahomey. Pinkerton and Homestead stay in Dahomey and become part of the royalty of the country.

This was the first all black show to be presented in a major Broadway theater. Once the novelty of the act wore off, the critics managed to honestly assess the quality of the show, particularly the talents of Williams.

The show toured England and managed to turn a 400% profit. This did not go unnoticed by white producers and just like they had done in black minstrelsy, they began to force black producers out of business.

Williams and Walker received criticism from the black intellectuals of the time for maintaining minstrel stereotypes, and just moving them to Africa. They responded to this criticism in a written letter in which they explained that their shows were dependent on white audiences and critics for their survival so they had to keep the expectations of those audiences in mind. They felt that even though the stereotypes were there, they were softened by black writers, and they felt that it was more important to get black performers on Broadway, then to remain in obscurity for lack of meeting some of the expectations of white audiences. Williams and Walker said this was the first step towards equality, and that the job of elevating the image of African-Americans was up to the next generation. They believed that if they developed blatant innovation, whites would not respond, and it would lead to box office failure.

In 1906, they presented Abyssinia. In this show, they depicted Africans as representatives of an ancient and praiseworthy culture and made Americans the target of ridicule. The show was based on a black family touring Europe who flees to Africa after a misunderstanding with the French police. Mistaken identity leads to one family member being mistaken for prince Rastus, the prince of an African country. The show attacked the Coon Song and the American Dream, pointing to the fact that those with little are often happier.

The show was immensely popular, but was lambasted by white critics, who felt that it was too white and had strayed too far form the established stereotypes. Williams and Walker couldn’t win---blacks thought they were selling out by continuing to portray stereotypical characters and when they strayed too far from those stereotypes, whites thought that they were too white.

Walker became ill and was forced to retire from the stage (D.1911)

Williams went to the Ziegfeld Follies and became the first black performer to appear with white performers in the same skit. He truly believed that he was paving the way for black performers. Williams died in 1922 at 48.

The first decade of this century was a heyday for black Broadway musicals. These shows were successful because of the artistry of the material and the quality of the talent. Unfortunately the audiences were mostly white. Theaters were strictly segregated and black audience members who bought orchestra seats were often asked to leave. The NAACP became involved in many battles involving black patrons who had been evicted from the main floor of the theater. Some of these battles were won.

As white producers began to control black musicals, the same thing happened as what had happened in black minstrelsy. The integrity of the material became secondary to spectacle.

During the second decade of the 1900’s African-American artists began to hone their talents away from the glare of the white critics. They performed in the nightclubs and theaters of Harlem and Chicago. They thrived on the input of their own communities.

In the 1920’s, the white community again became fascinated by the artistry of African-Americans. A movement starts in the black intellectual community known as the Harlem Renaissance. This was a period in which a new black cultural identity emerges, a transformation of social disillusionment to racial pride. White publishers became fascinated with the work of black authors, art critics became fascinated with black artists and the white public became fascinated again with black performers. By 1927, there were more white patrons in Harlem nightclubs than there were black.

This leads to another fruitful period on Broadway for black musicals. The most successful black musical to date appears in 1920. It is called Shuffle Along and was written by the famous team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The show was about corruption in politics---buying votes, making campaign promises, using taxpayer’s money to buy personal luxuries. The most famous song of the show was “ I’m just Wild About Harry.” In 1948, it became the campaign song for Harry Truman (President 1945-1953—made decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, which ended WWII). There was a 20 minute choreographed fight in the show, which became the precursor to the lengthy ballets that would appear in musicals in the 40’s, most notably, Oklahoma!.

The show made Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker stars and broke the rules of segregation. 1/3 of the orchestra was reserved for black patrons.

Black musicals managed to survive and thrive even though they were usually presented in dilapidated theaters in the heat of summer and had to fight the bias of white critics. These musicals are incredibly important because, like vaudeville, they proliferated an appreciation for African-American music and dance, which formed the basis for most of our vernacular forms.

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