At no point in history were music and theatre strangers. These two forms of artistic expression and methods of social commentary, constantly blended together to teach, stimulate, provoke. The continuous evolution of musical theatre makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint the start of the modern American musical theatre form. What we can deduce is that the American musical we know today came about in part through a series of interesting developments motivated by and rooted in America’s conflicted racial history.
The first documented performance of a musical in the United States, or rather the colonies, as they were at the time, was a production of the British ballad opera Flora in 1735, but the first original, American piece of musical theatre didn’t come about for over 100 years when four white men who called themselves The Virginia Minstrels, pioneered the minstrel show in 1843. Minstrel shows were characterized primarily by the use of blackface performers who used makeup made of either burnt cork and cocoa butter or grease paint. The black makeup was used to promote racist stereotypes in performances, allowing performers to mock and degrade blacks.
Before the birth of the minstrel show, blackface performers had appeared in various acts as characters in traveling variety shows, comic relief characters in plays, and most notably, in Thomas Rice’s Jim Crow performance. The Jim Crow performance was a one-man show that originated what would become a trademark character for many blackface performances—a laughable country bumpkin. Rice, in blackface, spoke in an exaggerated dialect, mimicking that of black slaves, which most whites considered to sound uneducated. Songs about loving plantation work were also incorporated into the performance, implying that blacks were too simple minded to desire anything more than life as a slave on a plantation, and reinforcing the belief that slavery was not cruel and inhumane. Rice’s performances as Jim Crow lead to the birth of minstrel shows, which were performed by large casts of actors, almost all in blackface aside from the interlocutor—the one white character who served as a leader to the group and was portrayed as much more intelligent and sophisticated than the other performers. He sat in the center of the arch of performers and guided the show along with his power to nag at the blackface performers, encouraging them to behave in a humiliating manner, and cut off any acts that were not captivating the audience by condescendingly uttering “gentlemen, be seated,” As the only white character and the most powerful, the interlocutor represented the expected racial power dynamic of the time.
While it was initially unacceptable for black performers to participate in minstrel shows, eventually talented black individuals began to make their way into minstrel troupes. As offensive as blackface was, the upside was that it was possible to disguise black performers by applying the same blackface makeup to their faces and requiring them to wear gloves throughout performances. Eventually it became unnecessary to disguise the racial identities of performers, though black minstrel performers were singled out as “authentic darkies.” There was another shift after the Civil War, and black performers became the norm in minstrel productions, eventually sans traditional blackface makeup. Callendar's Minstrels became the first all-black cast to perform without makeup in 1876. However, the content of minstrel shows did not change and continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes regarding blacks. It may seem curious that blacks would be willing to participate in such horrendous and self-deprecating humor, but this was the only way that whites would accept blacks on stage as performers at the time. At the time, the willingness of black performers to participate in minstrel shows was interpreted by the audience as an undeniable confirmation of the stereotypes perpetrated by the performances.
Minstrel shows were general crafted in a three-part form, with the second section being most significant and influential in the development of the American musical. Part two was called the olio and was structured like a talent show, a genre that eventually led to vaudeville. Vaudeville performances were variety shows—a collection of individual and diverse acts. They were among the most popular forms of entertainment in America in the early 1900s. While vaudeville performances did not depend solely on the degradation of blacks for source material, many individual acts used blackface and perpetuated the same stereotypes as minstrel shows. Blackface in vaudeville did, however, occasionally give black entertainers the opportunity to participate in performances.
The most famous black performer of the early 1900s was Bert Williams, who got his start in medicine shows and later joined Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrel Show, where he performed the Zip Coon stereotype, a character that mocked free blacks by attempting to be sophisticated in appearance but speaking in a series of foolish puns. Williams soon formed a partnership with George W. Walker, crafting a comedy duo called “Two Real Coons” that performed on vaudeville and quickly became one of the leading comedy acts of its era.
In 1902 Williams and Walker wrote and produced In Dahomey, which became the first black musical comedy performed on Broadway. Though the show turned out to be a success, its opening was controversial, with the New York Times review warning that “A thundercloud has been gathering of late in the faces of the established Broadway managers. Since it was announced that Williams and Walker, with their all-Negro musical comedy, In Dahomey, were booked to appear at the New York Theatre, there have been times when trouble breeders foreboded a race war” (Obrecht). When Walker died in 1909, Williams continued his Broadway career by joining the famous Ziegfeld’s Follies, a series of extravagant performances featuring song, dance, elaborate scenery and costumes, and beautiful chorus girls that ran from 1907 to 1931. There Williams created the persona of the “Jonah Man,” the most unlucky man in the world, resigned to self-pity and tied to a dim fate as a person of color. Williams's trademark character was an expansion of the traditional and simplistic coon role to create a fuller fleshed-out character that remained a dumb coon on the surface, but was actually a deep, thoughtful man.
His role in Follies was received incredibly well, met with the bold claim by Theatre Magazine that Bert Williams was “a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage.” Williams was clearly an impressive talent and success, but he was also met with overwhelming prejudice. Sometimes white performers refused to share a stage with him, and other times they complained that the material he wrote was better than their own. Despite the discrimination that he faced, Williams performed with Ziegfeld’s Follies from 1910 to 1919.
Even as American musical theatre transitioned into the Golden Age with the rise of the book musical, race remained a primary theme and source of tension in the theatre. The first book musical, considered to be the beginning of the Golden Age, was Showboat, a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, produced by Ziegfeld in 1927. Showboat is set in the late 1800s through early 1900s, telling the story of the Hawkes, who own a showboat called The Cotton Blossom. The main plot follows their daughter Magnolia who falls in love with Gaylord, a rampant gambler, but the subplots focus heavily on racial tensions, including a performer, Julie, who passes for white, but is exposed as mixed race. Julie’s husband is white, and mixed marriages were considered a criminal offense labeled miscegenation at the time. With Julie’s secret revealed, she and her husband are forced to leave the boat.
It can be difficult to discern whether Showboat supports or transcends racism. Is Showboat a racist musical or a musical about racism? On one hand, it was the first show that allowed black and white performers to openly share the Broadway stage, and it certainly put the spotlight on some important racial issues, specifically exposing the horrors of miscegenation laws. On the other hand, in the first production of Showboat, Julie and Queenie, two black roles, were played by white women in blackface. The original version of the show was filled with offensive stereotypes and racial slurs, and aside from Julie, the black characters in the show were all servants and dockworkers, many of which were portrayed as especially passive and happy-go-lucky, despite their plight and oppression, which arguably helped perpetuate the stereotype that blacks were too stupid to notice or care that they were oppressed. In her book Challenging Racism in the Arts, Carol Tator notes that all the black characters in Showboat fit into four of the five common stereotypes for black characters: Mammies, Uncle Toms, Coons, and Mulattoes. Queenie, for example, portrays the Mammy, or “Aunt Jemima” type who is loyal to her white masters and speaks in dumbed-down speech scattered with an uneducated dialect filled with mispronounced words like “dis” and “dat.” The character Joe, an old dockworker, was portrayed as a stereotypical Uncle Tom who is weak, passive, and somewhat mournful grandfather figure. Paul Robeson, the actor who premiered the role of Joe, looked back on the role regrettably in regards to its stereotypical nature, noting that
In the early days of my career as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers—that the content and form of a play or film was of little or no importance to us. What mattered was the opportunity, which came so seldom… Later I came to understand that the Negro artist had a responsibility to his people who rightfully resented the traditionally stereotyped portrayals of Negros on stage and screen (Tator 178).
Furthermore, with the exception of Julie, the black characters in the show do nothing to contribute to the plot. The show is about a white family with black characters used as decoration and entertainment for whites. One viewer explains that:
White characters sing and dance and fall in and out of love. The black characters sing and dance. The white characters sing and dance, get married and have babies, suffer painful separations and tearful reunions The black characters sing and dance. The white characters succeed and fail, hate and love, are evil and kind. The black characters sing and dance. The white characters sing and dance and forgive and forget and Black Joe sings “Ole Man River” (Blenman).
The racial messages of Showboat remain controversial today, sparking the formation of The Coalition to Stop Showboat in the early 1990s, an organization dedicated to halting a production of Showboat from playing at the North York Performing Arts Centre under the claim that “the mounting of this production transcends the concerns of the Black community and has become an issue of ‘human decency’” (Tator 170).
Beyond Showboat, American musicals have continued to focus on race relations and have been met with varying degrees of controversy. Bernstein and Sondheim’s 1957 musical West Side Story depicts the violent discrimination that occurred between whites and Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. Hairspray, written in the early 2000s but set in 1962 Baltimore, looks at the segregation and inequality that still existed in a society that was, on the surface, moving towards equality, such as black television stars only being allowed to perform on the Corny Collins show once a month, and never with the white performers who performed every afternoon. On the other hand, it’s important to note, that while the black characters in Hairspray aren’t necessarily one-dimensional, the white characters are the ones who are revered as heroes for taking action and standing up to racism.
The overwhelmingly popular art form of the American musical theatre was born out of and continues to reflect the racial tensions of the time, as can be observed in the characters, stories, and themes it explores. Today we can see encouraging signs that musical theatre is shifting away from reinforcing racial prejudice and instead toward exposing racial injustices with shows like Ragtime (1998) divulging discrepancies between the lives of blacks, whites, and Jews in the twentieth century—even exploring the mistreatment and unjust killing of blacks by law enforcement, a crisis that has been making headlines this past year. Even more recently, The Book of Mormon (2011), lighthearted as it is, satirizes the ignorant assumptions whites often make about Africans. Even with this promising shift, the musical theatre scene continues to be dominated by whites, therefore often showcasing white perspectives and speaking to white audiences. As time marches on, we can hope that the American musical will be used as a vessel that empowers diverse voices and that what started as a means of enforcing racial prejudice can fully evolve into a medium that exposes societal injustice.
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