Musical theater—formal, staged entertainments combining songs, skits, instrumental interludes, and dances—was relatively uncommon in America before the middle of the eighteenth century. It is very likely that slave musicians occasionally took part in the earliest colonial-period musical theatricals, called ballad operas, at least in the orchestra pit, because many slaves were known to be musically accomplished. Less than fully developed theatrical shows that involved satirical skits by slaves about white masters are recorded in the late eighteenth century. These skits, related to African storytelling traditions, were the seeds from which black American theatricality sprang. "Negro songs" or "Negro jigs" are also recorded in the shows of this period, suggesting the impact of an unnotated tradition of black music-making on the musical theater song repertory.
Up to the Civil War
The 1821 opening of the African Grove theater near lower Broadway in New York inaugurated the staging of plays with music "agreeable to Ladies and Gentlemen of Colour" (Southern, 1983, p. 119). Led by playwright Henry Brown, the African Grove players produced Shakespeare's Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III (including inserted songs), popular potpourris such as Tom and Jerry; or Life in London, and the pantomime Obi; or, Three Finger'd Jack. James Hewlett was the company's principal singer and actor. Ira Aldridge, who later made his career in Europe, sang at the Grove. Despite the theater's popularity, it was plagued by hooligans and closed in 1829.
Various musical shows were produced with black performers periodically in Philadelphia and New Orleans, although very little information survives about these shows. New Orleans could command orchestral forces (as opposed to the modest pit band of violin, clarinet, and double bass at the African Grove) for theatricals, and it engaged black players in the 1840s. In the 1850s and 1860s, African-American actors became traveling entertainers or joined minstrel shows.
The Late Nineteenth Century
The Hyers Sisters touring company, founded in 1876, became the first established African-American musical comedy troupe. Managed by Sam Hyers, the company featured his two daughters, Emma Louise and Anna Madah, and a string of male comedy singer/actors: Fred Lyon, Sam Lucas, Billy Kersands, Wallace King, and John and Alexander Luca. The Hyers began as a concert-giving group but moved on to fully staged musical plays that often dealt with racial themes: Out of Bondage (1876); Urlina, or The African Princess (1879); Peculiar Sam; or, The Underground Railroad (1879); and Plum Pudding (1887). The music they presented included jubilee songs, spirituals, operatic excerpts, and new popular songs and dances.
By the 1890s, a few specific plays regularly toured and featured parts for black singers, usually in the guise of plantation slaves. Bucolic scenes or other scenarios in the cotton field, on the levee, or in a camp meeting were meant to evoke an idyllic antebellum South. Turner Dazey's In Old Kentucky (1892) and The South Before the War (1893) included black singers and dancers, as did the most famous of all shows of this type, Uncle Tom's Cabin (based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel). The huge number and variety of staged versions of this powerful work made it a unique dramatic vehicle in American culture. Many African-American jubilee singing groups, typically male quartets, took part in the play, although early performances rarely used black actors. It served the careers of solo banjo virtuoso Horace Weston in 1877 and vaudevillian Sam Lucas, who played the role of Uncle Tom in the 1880s.
At least half a dozen all-black companies, as well as some integrated ones, appeared before the end of the century. Black choral singers and supernumeraries, including children, brought literally hundreds of people to the stage in productions in the 1880s and 1890s. Other festivals featuring black vaudeville acts, musical specialties, and historical tableaux, with titles like Black America (1895) and Darkest America (1897), were well-attended showcases but did not present complete plays.
The most widely acclaimed operatic singer of the period to become involved with traveling musical theatrical companies was Sissieretta Jones, known as the Black Patti (after the renowned soprano Adelina Patti). In 1896 she formed the Black Patti Troubadours and remained an important presence on the road for two decades, eventually mounting full-fledged musical comedies.
White burlesque entrepreneur Sam T. Jack formed the Creole Company in 1890 to do the skit The Beauty of the Nile; or, Doomed by Fire, using the novelty of black women in a minstrel line that emphasized glittery, revealing costumes and diverse musical acts. John Isham, Jack's advance man, developed his own potpourri shows presented by mixed male and female companies known as the Octoroons (1895), one of which toured in Europe. All of Isham's shows exploited the popularity of exotic costumes, operatic excerpts, musical specialties, spectacular scenery, and attractive women, while avoiding farcical minstrel show caricatures.
The First Black Musicals and the Growth of Black Vaudeville, 1897–1920
Within this world of extravagant eclecticism, full-length musical comedies—plays in which songs were frequent and newly composed, if not integral—became more and more common. The first musical written by and for African Americans, Bob Cole and Billy Johnson's A Trip to Coontown (1897), was built up from Cole's songs and vaudeville turns with the Black Patti Troubadours (Cole had also managed her show in its first season) and other elements: a trio from Verdi's opera Attila, Sousa's new march "The Stars and Stripes Forever," a tune by Cole that was later adapted to become Yale University's fight song "Boola Boola," energetic dancing, topical humor, and social commentary. The show eschewed the Old South nostalgia typical of the earlier touring shows. Minstrel tunes were replaced by snappy up-tempo, occasionally syncopated songs written by various composers.
At the same time, cakewalk dancers/comedians Bert Williams and George Walker, in the course of several productions from 1898 to 1908, expanded their routines to even more ambitious dimensions, with elaborate plots and often African settings: The Policy Players (1899); The Sons of Ham (1900); In Dahomey (1902); Abyssinia (1905); and Bandanna Land (1907). Will Marion Cook, classical violinist and European-trained composer, wrote most of the music for these landmark shows in a unique syncopated style. Cook's sensational Broadway debut—his musical skit "Clorindy" was produced at the Casino Theatre Roof Garden in 1898—established him as a leading figure, along with its dancing star, Ernest Hogan.
In 1899 Bob Cole formed a partnership with the brothers J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson. This young trio wrote songs for many shows and performers, black and white, to great success, and later composed comic operettas for all-black casts entitled The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1906) and The Red Moon (1908); they also starred in the shows themselves. Black, white, and mixed audiences found these many early twentieth-century efforts attractive, but any hope for sustained development was dashed by the premature deaths of the leaders, Ernest Hogan, George Walker, and Bob Cole, around 1910 and the unremitting financial burden of mounting and touring with a large cast. Racism and professional jealousies among competing companies also limited the success of these shows.
Black-owned theaters rapidly increased in number in the early twentieth century, providing sites for a wide variety of musical-theater activities. Following the opening of the Pekin Theatre in Chicago in 1905, many black-owned
or black-managed houses were built. By 1920 some 300 theaters around the country were serving black patrons (approximately one-third of these were black-run). This in turn led to the formation of resident stock companies that provided a regular menu of musical plays and developed loyal audiences. Many short-lived shows of the 1920s and 1930s filled the Lafayette, Lincoln, and Alhambra theaters in Harlem, the Howard in Washington, D.C., the Regal in Baltimore, Maryland, the Monogram in Chicago, the 81 in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Booker T. Washington in Saint Louis, Missouri, among others.
A few large companies continued to tour—J. Leubrie Hill's Darktown Follies (from 1911 to 1916) and the various Smart Set shows run by S. H. Dudley, H. Tutt, and S. T. Whitney—but many acts appeared in vaudeville as well. By 1920 the Theatre Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) was formed to facilitate the booking of black acts into theaters that served black audiences exclusively. The TOBA circuit of theaters eventually embraced houses all over the South and survived until the Great Depression.
Vaudeville acts and musicals of the first decades of the twentieth century served as apprenticeships for many young ragtime pianists and composers who wanted to break into the business. J. Tim Brymn, James Vaughan, Charles "Luckey" Roberts, James Price Johnson, and Will Vodery played, wrote songs for, and directed forgotten shows with titles like George Washington Bullion Abroad (1915) and Baby Blues (1919) before going on to arrange, perform, and write for military bands, Broadway shows, and films.
Shuffle Along and its Successors, 1921–1939
Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's 1921 Shuffle Along kicked off a major revival of black musical comedies in New York. Light, fast-moving, and filled with catchy melodies, it captured crowds for over 500 Broadway performances and spent two years on the road. Its lead comedians, still in blackface, were Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller, who wrote the book, developing material they had been using for years. Many cast members later found individual stardom: Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Hall Johnson, Paul Robeson, William Grant Still, Ethel Waters, and Caterina Yarboro.
The upsurge in black shows in the wake of Shuffle Along has not been equaled since. Their number paralleled the high-water mark of new productions of all kinds on Broadway in the late 1920s. Many were close imitations of Shuffle Along, but a few broke new ground with respect to both characters and music: Put and Take (1921); Liza (1922); Strut Miss Lizzie (1922); Plantation Days (1923); Runnin' Wild (1923); Bottomland (1927); Africana (1927); Rang Tang (1927); and five shows produced by Lew Leslie called Blackbirds (of 1926, 1928, 1930, 1933, and 1939 ).
Hot Chocolates (1929), by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller, epitomized the successful post–Shuffle Along show of the late 1920s: a revue (i.e., a string of topical acts and songs rather than a plotted story show) filled with new dance steps—the Black Bottom, the Lindy, the Shimmy, and the Charleston all appeared in these shows—with an attractive chorus line, blues songs, and repartee closer to the real speech of Harlem than to either the pseudo-dialect of minstrelsy or the clean, cute shows of white Broadway. James P. Johnson, Tom Lemonier, Donald Heyward, Maceo Pinkard, Joe Jordan, Henry Creamer, Ford Dabney, and Perry Bradford emerged as songwriters with these shows.
The spirituals arranged by Hall Johnson and sung by his choir helped to make The Green Pastures the hit play of 1930. Weaving humor and gentleness together to create a naive picture of a black heaven, the superb cast was well received. Ironically, its very success led to bookings in exclusionary theaters where no blacks were admitted to the auditorium. Both this show and its successor, Run Little Chillun (1933), helped to ensure the continued employment of black players and singers during the general decline of the 1930s.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Negro Theatre Project (1935–1939) brought African Americans into all aspects of theater production, and a few musicals were performed: Did Adam Sin? (1936), using African-American folklore themes and music; Theodore Brown's Natural Man (1937), a retelling of the John Henry legend; Swing It (1937), by Cecil Mack (a.k.a. R. Cecil McPherson); and Swing Mikado (1939), a jazz transformation of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Developments Since World War II
The only major shows featuring black stars in the 1940s were Cabin in the Sky (1940) with Ethel Waters and St. Louis Woman (1946) with Pearl Bailey and the Nicolas Brothers. Otherwise, opportunities for blacks in the New York musical theater scene through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were few. A desire to eliminate stereotyped roles for black actors and the problem of dealing with serious race-related social issues in the normally lighthearted style of musicals resulted in the temporary elimination of nearly all black participation. No all-black-cast shows were staged in the early 1950s, nor were more than a handful of African Americans employed on- or off-stage during this period. A small group of shows with integrated casts or a single black star did well at the box office, notably Jamaica (1957) with Lena Horne and Golden Boy (1964) with Sammy Davis Jr.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, African Americans returned to Broadway and touring companies via the revival of older black musical styles and the folk songs that had always found an audience. The plays of Langston Hughes with various musical collaborators, Simply Heavenly (1957), Black Nativity (1961), Tambourines to Glory (1963), and The Prodigal Son (1965), embraced black culture and ignored the politics of integration. Vinnette Carroll adapted James Weldon Johnson's verse sermons for Trumpets of the Lord (1963). Gospel songs, spirituals, and folk songs also infused A Hand Is at the Gate (1966), Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (1972), and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1976).
More direct social criticism was offered in the calypso musical Ballad for Bimshire (1963) and in Melvin Van Peebles's angry and challenging plays Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) and Don't Play Us Cheap (1972). Blues, jazz, and the special styles of famous artists in earlier eras of black music added a nostalgic aura to the shows of the rest of the 1970s and 1980s: Me and Bessie (1975), One Mo' Time (1979), Eubie (1979), Sophisticated Ladies (1981), Blues in the Night (1982), Dreamgirls (1982), Williams and Walker (1986), and Black and Blue (1989).
The same decades saw the successful conversion of straight plays by black playwrights (Ossie Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin) into musicals: Purlie (1970), Raisin (1973), The Amen Corner (1983), as well as the improbable remake of Sophocles into the fervid gospel-music show The Gospel at Colonus (1988). A uniquely whimsical and tuneful adaptation of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, with music by Charles Smalls, became The Wiz (1975, revived in 1984), and black-cast versions of the white shows Hello Dolly (1963 and 1975) and Guys and Dolls (1976) and self-conscious historical song summaries like Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976) and Black Broadway (1980) also appeared. As in the 1930s, the revue format succeeded best with audiences and critics. Ain't Misbehavin',
using the tunes of Fats Waller, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1978.
Approaching the Millennium: 1980–2000
American musical theater was transformed fundamentally in the wake of the civil rights and women's movements and the decline in government arts funding between 1975 and 2000. Racial, ethnic, and gender images onstage came under closer scrutiny, and producers began to recognize that casting practices should more fully reflect America's diverse social fabric. It was not lost on administrators and marketing directors that increased inclusiveness helped attract a larger paying audience.
As nondiscriminatory hiring and color-blind casting became fashionable in mainline white theaters, black directors, such as Idris Ackamoor, Rhodessa Jones and her brother Bill T. Jones, George C. Wolf (Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, 1995), and Donald Byrd, found opportunities to advance new theatrical concepts of dance, dialogue, and song that challenged basic genre boundaries and mooted to some degree issues of racial integration within older forms.
Major shifts in taste shaped the kind of productions that arose. Caribbean- and African-inspired themes found audiences. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty created Once on This Island (1990) with Trinidadian motifs. Sarafina! (1987), Song of Jacob Zulu (1993), Umbatha: The Zulu Macbeth (1997), and Kat and the Kings (1999) all took South Africa during the apartheid era for their setting. The standard musical fare changed also as Tin Pan Alley's popular songs were replaced by gospel tunes, rap, and digitally
generated dance music. Old-style musical comedies, revues, and operettas virtually disappeared, to be replaced by solo performance pieces, historical medleys, experimental plays with incidental music, song-and-dance shows, and revivals of old hits. Earthy, assertive rappers and break dancers emerged from the South Bronx and spread across the country in this period to challenge and rejuvenate basic components within musical theater.
Shows high on energy, retrospection, and creative movement, but less apt to be driven by a powerful book, remained the norm. Jelly's Last Jam (1992), featuring dancing sensation Gregory Hines, and the one-man show created by Vernel Bagneris, Jelly Roll! (1994), both treated the near-legendary figure of jazz history, Jelly Roll Morton. The former was hailed by Variety as "original, outrageous, and exuberant" and received eleven Tony Award nominations.
Individual African-American stars shone in a variety of productions: Brian Stokes Mitchell in the musical version of Doctorow's novel Ragtime (1997); Audra McDonald also in Ragtime and as the central figure in Marie Christine (1999), a remarkable representation of the Medea myth set in New Orleans in 1894; and soprano Heather Headley in the Elton John/Tim Rice recreation of Aida (2000).
By 2000, Broadway itself had become only one of many places in which to find validation for original productions. The steady decline of New York City as an affordable workshop site for new ideas combined with steep cutbacks in federal and state patronage of the performing arts to affect developments everywhere. Other media, such as MTV and the movies, opened remunerative pathways for emerging artists, and live theater found increasingly that it needed to market itself through videos and CDs.
Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds., with a foreword by Mel Watkins. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Black Minstrelsy. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
Charters, Ann. Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Cook, Will Marion. "Clorindy; or, The Origin of the Cakewalk." In Readings in Black American Music, edited by Eileen Southern. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.
Flanagan, Hallie. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (1940). New York: Arno, 1990.
Fletcher, Tom. 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business: The Tom Fletcher Story. New York: Burdge, 1954. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1984.
Graziano, John. "Black Musical Theatre and the Harlem Renaissance Movement." In Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays, edited by Samuel A. Floyd Jr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1990.
Hatch, James V. Black Image on the American Stage: A Bibliography of Plays and Musicals, 1770–1970. New York: DBS, 1970.
Hatch, James V., and Ted Shine, eds. Black Theater, U.S.A.: Plays by Black Americans 1847 to Today. New York: Free Press, 1996.
Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Hughes, Langston, and Milton Meltzer. Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. New York: Knopf, 1930.
Kimball, Robert, and William Bolcom. Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake. New York: Viking, 1973.
Riis, Thomas L. Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Sampson, Henry. Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows. New York: Scarecrow, 1980.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1983.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
Woll, Allen. Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
thomas l. riis (1996)
Updated by author 2005