Jamaica: Exploring the Caribbean on Broadway

After reading Carol Oja’s article “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s” for class, I found myself wondering what other musicals premiered on Broadway during the 1957-1958 season.1
A quick google search revealed that, along with West Side Story and The Music Man, three other shows were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958: New Girl in Town, and Oh, Captain, as well as one name that stuck out to me: Jamaica. Knowing nothing about Jamaica, I was immediately intrigued by the idea that another musical dealing with American-Caribbean relations was on Broadway at the same time as West Side Story.

Cover of the opening night program for Jamaica, which opened at the Majestic Theater on October 31st, 1957.

Using a modified Calypso musical style that was popular in New York, Jamaica (book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, music by Harold Arlen, and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) tells the story of a Caribbean island community and its experience with tourism and other current events of the late 1950s. The musical was not a critical success, but became “the longest running black-cast Broadway musical up to that time.”2
Theater scholar Shane Vogel remarked that “Jamaica parodied the colonial system, Caribbean tourist economies, and the ideological struggles that subtended a cold war that was never very cold. It may be the only Broadway musical to stage, just before intermission, a mushroom cloud.”3 Through a variety of artistic changes made just before opening (including replacing the original Jamaican star Harry Belafonte with Lena Horne) the political critique of the show was somewhat watered down. (It is also interesting to note that Alvin Ailey appeared in the ensemble.)

West Side Story and Jamaica uses similar themes of connection between Caribbean islands and the United States, but in dramatically different ways. While West Side Story focused on the trials of racial and cultural integration of white and Puerto Rican American youth in New York City, Jamaica emphasized the detrimental effects of colonialism on the inhabitants of the fictional Pigeon Island, at least at first. By the time it got to Broadway,

Advertisements frame the list of scenes in Jamaica.

and despite the intentions of the writers, “the show appeared as a typical instance of mid-century Broadway Caribbeana: a tourist production that traded on notions of an undifferentiated Caribbean landscape and a tropical aesthetic of “calypso” rhythms, moonlight romance, and folk simplicity” “where blackness was staged as a site and possibility for diasporic political consciousness,” according to Vogel.4 Reflecting this change, advertisements that appeared in the opening night playbill were for cruise ships, clothes, and alcohol.5
While the songs still contained critiques of American intervention (for example “Yankee Dollar,” and “Leave the Atom Alone”), the Playbill synopsis now reads “A Jamaican woman dreams of moving to New York City, despite her boyfriend’s contentment with the island life.”6
Despite giving a platform to black artists, many of whom became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, Jamaica was a far cry from giving a unique political voice to black island communities. For further reflection on the evolution of musicals with Caribbean themes, it would be interesting to compare Jamaica to the current Broadway musicals that take place on Caribbean islands, such as Once On This Island, and Escape to Margaritaville.

1 Oja, Carol. “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s” Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009): 13-20.

2 Oja, Carol. “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s” Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009): 2. ProQuest. Accessed April 15, 2018.

3 Oja, “Jamaica on Broadway,” 1.

4 Oja, “Jamaica on Broadway,” 2, 18.

5 “Jamaica,” Playbill Vault. http://www.playbill.com/production/jamaica-imperial-theatre-vault-0000006056.

6 Ibid.

Broadway Musicals, Mixed Race Identity, and Internalized Racism

Up until 1967 and the Loving vs. Virginia court case, interracial marriages were deemed illegal in the United States. This does not mean that interracial relations did not occur prior to this time. There is in fact a long history of interracial relations in the United States, many of which come along with much trauma, particularly in the history of white, male slave masters raping their black female slaves. That being said, views supporting anti-miscegenation are what allowed for interracial marriages to remain illegal until so recently. As seen in the newspaper article below, anti-miscegenation groups with the soul purpose of preventing interracial marriages were not uncommon. Much of anti-miscegenation is based in the idea of white supremacy and the sentiment that white racial purity must be upheld.

Segment from the San Francisco Bulletin in 1886

Living in a society rooted in white supremacy has enormous effects on mixed race individuals, particularly in contributing towards feelings of internalized racism. Internalized racism is when an individual feels a sense of low self worth and negative attitudes about their own race as a consequence of being a part of a racist society. This feeling is particularly prominent among mixed race individuals, especially those of both a minority and non-minority racial group. Combining this with the history of anti-miscegenation beliefs and laws contributes to a prevalence of internalized racism within mixed race individuals.

Anna and King Mongkut of Siam in “The King and I”

Chris and Kim in “Miss Saigon”

There are a variety of Broadway shows that highlight relationships between a white individual and a person of color. These shows include, but are not limited to, Miss Saigon, The King and I, Hairspray, and South Pacific. Interracial relationships within these musicals are consistently portrayed as “unconventional.” Additionally, the white individual is usually portrayed in an idealized manner whereas the person of color is portrayed as the “other”. In both Miss Saigon and The King and I, the interracial relationships occur because the white individual travels to either Vietnam or Siam. What is not acknowledged, however, is that this global connectedness occurs because of colonial/imperialist history. In Miss Saigon, Chris goes to Vietnam because of the U.S involvement in the Vietnam war. In The King and I,  Anna goes to Siam to give the King’s children a European education, something that would not be necessary if it were not for the history of colonialism. Thus from the beginning of the relationships, there is a power dynamic created. There is a sense of superiority established of the white person in the relationship merely because of their white identity. It is possible that mixed race people relate to these relationships because they parents of differing races. These relationship portrayals would likely have a negative effect upon these individuals’ psyches, particularly if one of their parents is white. This is because it emphasizes the superiority of the white parent, which has a strong likelihood of contributing to feelings of internalized racism against their non-white race. The fact that these issues are augmented even in Broadway musicals shows how normal it is for mixed race individuals to be bombarded with reminders of white superiority, making internalized racism seem almost inescapable. 

Sources:

“Anti-Miscegenation Movement. Organization in Louisiana to Prevent the Intermarriage of Whites and Blacks.” San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, CA), September 30, 1886.

“Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case.” Publishers Weekly 263, no. 46 (2016): 57.

Matthew Murphy, Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada, print, 2017. http://www.playbill.com/article/enter-for-your-chance-to-see-miss-saigons-last-performance-on-broadway.

McDowell, T., Ingoglia, L., Serizawa, T., Holland, C. (2005). Raising Multiracial Awareness in Family Therapy Through Critical Conversations. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(4), 399-411.

The King and I, print, 2017. http://www.broadwaysd.com/upcoming-events/rodgers-hammerstein-king-and-i/.

Swing Along: Broadway Opens New Doors

In Dahomey, a musical comedy with music written by Will Marion Cook, was a landmark in the development of early 20th-century musical entertainment created and performed by African Americans. In fact, it was the first full-length black musical performed inside a Broadway theatre.1

Cook was a well-educated musician not only in popular song, but also in the classical realm. His skills as a classical performer stemmed out his studies at Oberlin College Conservatory, in Berlin under Joachim, and at the National Conservatory in New York.2 Nevertheless, Cook struggled to be accepted as a serious classical composer and performer because of racial prejudices in the field in the early 1900s.3

Cleveland Gazette Article regarding “In Dahomey”

“The terrible difficulty that composers of my race have to deal with, is the refusal of American people to accept serious things from us.”4

In Dahomey did not start out in a Broadway theatre; however, audiences of the first performances received it with great enjoyment. In this article from the Cleveland Gazette, great credit for the show’s success and trajectory toward Broadway is pointed toward the main stars of the show Bert Williams and George Walker.5 Both actors were African American ex-vaudeville performers who excelled in the realm of comedy.6 Cook was firm in his opposition towards minstrelsy and black face performance and held true to African Americans being played by African American actors.7

The significance of In Dahomey to our class is the incorporation of black folk elements that have risen in our discussions around the components of spirituals, blues, and jazz. What Cook did so brilliantly was draw from black folk songs while rejecting the exaggerated and stereotyped imagery of minstrel show songs.8 Such elements include syncopation, vernacular language, and even the inclusion of the cake walk.

“Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook” William Brown and Ann Sears, Will Marion Cook, In Dahomey: Swing Along, Naxos Music Library, 4:53, 2006.

“Swing Along” is a song our textbook pointed to as being demonstrative of the inclusion of black folk components. I have included a recording here where the listener can hear syncopation used to jump the end of the phrase into the next. Crawford attests that Cook uses such syncopation to relate back to coon song of black folk culture.9 In this recording made in 2006, William Brown sings with a boisterous tone that carries the intention of a musical comedy true to the musical itself. The setting with piano accompaniment and solo singer shows that Cook’s music was indeed part of the popular genre because such editions were published for performance by all people.

It seems pretty easy to get excited about In Dahomey and its success as the first in New York to be performed African Americans. However, it is also striking that Will Marion Cook, a key contributor to this success, was led to writing for popular song because he was kept away from his true aspiration and talents in classical music. This creates a tension that we as historians must be cognizant of. That is, we have to realize that while this musical was a step forward for black Broadway theatre, it is also linked to a demonstration of racial prejudice and social discrimination in the field of classical music.

It’s Musical Theater! So it’s ok… right?

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.41.47 PMThis week we have the great opportunity to delve into the history of our community at St. Olaf by looking through the well preserved archives of the college’s student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger. The “Mess” as it is often referred to by current students captures events on campus and student news ranging from academia to athletics and yes, music. From our class discussion on American musical theater, I thought it would be interesting to look into the history of our theater department and it’s musical productions and my search yielded an article about the St. Olaf performance of Gypsy in 1987.

gypsy merm Gypsy, a 1959 musical with book written by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, andlyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee (1914-1970). Rose Lee was an entertainer who specialized in burlesque, a style of dramatization intended to cause laughter.  The musical centers of Gypsy’s mother who attempts to turn one of her daughters into a Vaudville star.  Rose, Gypsy’s mother, eventually convinces her younger daughter Louise to do a striptease on stage which catapults her into fame. Louise soon becomes known as “Gypsy Rose Lee” and eventually rejects her mother’s assistance in her ascent to stardom.

Our course this semester we have talked about a wide array of political and societal issues concerning American music and musical theater is no exception. Setting a story to music and then putting that story on stage adds multiple layers for contention.  Women in music has been a common point of interest for the course and Gypsy puts a controversial topic at center stage. Director Patrick Quade stated that “the production has accepted the responsibility of trying to avoid offending people” when asked about the musical’s touchy subject. The arts often provide the opportunity to push the envelope and Quade certainly took that opportunity.  My favorite quotation from Professor Quade addresses the controversy directly as he states: “why are we doing a play that treats women as sexual objects?… This aspect of the musical is part of American history, and you don’t wipe out history.” For Patrick Quade, the purpose of putting on a production of the musical Gypsy was not to spark an uproar, but to spark a conversation. Examining musical theater and the progression of musicals as a form of entertainment provides a hefty amount of insight into not only the musical style of the time period, but also the issues of the era. These conflicts are preserved though the musical work and provide the unique opportunity to serve as entertainment and as an educational tool with each production.

References

Brown, Dave. “Musical Comedy “Gypsy” Opens Thursday.” Manitou Messenger, November 6, 1987, Lifestyle/Arts sec. Accessed April 21, 2015.

The forgotten vs the popular

This week two records are thrown into the cage and only one will be the victor. First up is After the Ball: A Treasury of Turn-of-the Century Popular Songs. Including songs “After the Ball”, “Good Bye, My Lady Love”, “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?”, and many other great hits from 1892 – 1905. These songs are all performed by soprano Joan Morris and pianist William Bolcom. The album features liner notes from Joan Morris as well.
20150420_140158Morris and Bolcom

In the other corner is Where Have We Met Before?: Forgotten Songs from Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. This record boasts tracks such as “Where Have We Met Before?”, “What Can You Say in a Love Song?”, “You Forgot Your Gloves”, and other forgettable tunes from 1931-1939 and 1944-1947. These songs are performed by all sorts of bands, small groups, and orchestras. The album is defended and presented by theorist Milton Babbit. Which of course begs the question, “Who cares if Milton Babbitt listens to unsuccessful tunes from years past?”

20150420_140113

20150420_140127

A serious difference between these two contenders is their (re)interpretation of the songs. In the case of Morris and Bolcom, they create a team that likely would have been familiar in the homes of first listeners. Most of these early songs success depended on sheet music sales which meant that common, untrained musicians had to like them and buy them for casual performance and entertainment. However these songs also would have been initially presented on stage for Broadway productions and had slightly larger orchestrations than voice + piano.

In contrast Where Have We Met Before? gives us original recordings that are all within a year of the publication or first performance of the song. In his liner notes, Milton Babbitt gives an overview of the history of the songs from sheet music to radio to movies and back again. Babbitt also delves into questions of genre in popular music and what it means that these songs all present similar form and style as our other contender, but either didn’t sell or did and were forgotten. Most of these songs are written by Tin Pan Alley greats Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, among others. Babbitt argues that these songs were a victim of history, caught between favored genre and technological change.

 

Of course there is the ever present issue of Milton Babbitt as our liner note writer. Babbitt gives these songs meaning that they might never have had otherwise. Why present songs that were forgotten if you are a distinguished theoretical mind and professor. My personal theory is that while Babbitt was spending all of those hours in university basements composing and putting together his pieces he listened to these obscure pop songs from the 30s and 40s and found love for them. More on the point, does Babbitt give these songs undue authority? Do these songs represent something that the successful ones cannot? Do they mean more because they were written and forgotten, but Milton Babbitt says that we should listen to them?

Perhaps it is just a way to pay homage to great writers and songsters that are not appreciated fully and only remembered for a few super hits. Possibly it has something to do with a little blurb at the bottom of the page.

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This could be Babbitt’s ego manifesting itself as a Tin Pan Alley fan.

The Jazz Singer: from stage to film

the jazz singerMuch of the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 is due to the massive popularity of the star Al Jolson. Regular concert goers and musical theater fans were familiar with Jolson who performed to sold-out audiences at the Winter Garden theater on Broadway. Jolson began performing in blackface make-up early in his career when he realized that it made him even more popular.[1]  Most of the music featured in the film is either traditional Jewish music such as Kaddish and Kol Nidre, or popular music of the time.

The popular music comes from successful writers Paul Dresser, Lewis Muir, Irving Berlin, and Walter Donaldson, among others. The popular music is all written and published before the filming of The Jazz Singer. Jolson often graces the covers of these published tunes, illustrating just how public he was in the music that he performed. While the movie plot follows the course of an aspiring minstrel singer, it basically functions as a minstrel show on film. This makes sense of course, but also falls to the problems with minstrel shows. Even more, the popularity of the movie comes from the popularity of Jolson and the music he has already made popular.

toottoottootsiemymammy

 

The movie is an attempt to gain as much publicity as possible by including several popular songs and a most popular actor, Jolson. Using the minstrel techniques to gain popularity ignores where they come from and places them on a stage which legitimized blackface as a way to confront discrimination on all accounts.

[1] Oberfirst, Robert. Al Jolson: You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet. (London: Barnes & Co., 1980), 61-80.

Sheet Music Consortium

Library of Congress

Recreating Jewish Identity in the postwar era: Is Fiddler on the Roof Jewish enough?

Image

Zero Mostel with ensemble in F... Digital ID: psnypl_the_5222. New York Public Library

Zero Mostel and ensemble in the original Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof (1964)1

After World War II, American Jews felt an increase in security and prosperity. There was a general decline in anti-semitism and an increase in political power. In parallel, many Jews pushed to assimilate economically, culturally, and symbolically in America.2 In the making of the 1964 musical, initially investors, particularly Jewish investors, feared the show would be considered “too ethnic,” meaning “too Jewish.” Later, with Rosie O’Donnell starring in the 2004 Broadway revival, it wasn’t Jewish enough.3

The story focuses on Tevye and his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions, while outside influences encroach upon his family’s lives. He is forced to cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who marry for love instead of following the matchmaker, Yente’s choice. Each daughter’s husband moves further away from the customs of Tevye’s faith and the edict the Tsar has made that evicts Jews from their village.

I find this storyline to be perfect for a postwar hit in line with the recreating of Jewish identity. Jews in America are no longer concerned with security and genocide, and therefore must come to terms with their faith–often questioning God, their faith, Jewish law as is seen in Tevye’s character.

I think this is clearly seen by the opening song, Tradition, which explains the traditional roles and social classes in Anatevka and the villagers trying to continue their traditions and keep their society running as the world around them changes. This echoes the real-life struggle to reshape Jewish identity in the postwar era in America.

In an interview with the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, he describes Tevye as “universal…he has no nationality, because he symbolizes the underprivelaged in every country– no matter what adversary he meets, he just puffs up his chest and goes on.”4 Even in Barbara Isenberg’s Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical, she writes

“Fiddler has become a sort of tabula rasa for terrorism, repression, and prejudice that seems eternally pertinent. Warning that “horrible things are happening all over the land” could apply to Nazi Germany, Vietnam, or Iraq as much as to pre-revolutionary Russia…If you are running a theater and you want to make money, Fiddler is a shoe-in: It’s a show people always want to see.” It’s a little like saying diamonds are pretty because they sparkle.”5

There seems to be quite a debate between Fiddler being too Jewish by creating a story centering around Jews so soon after World War II. But also and I think more so, that Fiddler isn’t Jewish enough because Jews (like the investors) wanted to tame the Jewishness of the show in order to appeal to a wide audience. Ultimately, the goal any Broadway is to sell tickets and fill seats. Perhaps though in the process of selling seats and appeasing a wide audience, much of Sholem Aleichem’s original story may have been misinterpreted and/or misrepresented.

1 http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=1894114&imageID=psnypl_the_5222&word=Fiddler%20on%20the%20Roof&s=1&notword=&d=&c=&f=&k=1&lWord=&lField=&sScope=&sLevel=&sLabel=&sort=&total=13&num=0&imgs=20&pNum=&pos=7

2 Ciment, James. “The Meaning of Jewishness.” Postwar America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. New York: Routledge, 2015

3 Isenberg, Barbara. Too Jewish?: The Making of Fiddler on the Roof. Los Angeles: St. Martin’s Press, 2014

4 Stang, Joanne. “At Home With Tevye.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 04, 1964. http://search.proquest.com/docview/115569663?accountid=351.

5 Isenberg, Barbara. Too Jewish?: The Making of Fiddler on the Roof. Los Angeles: St. Martin’s Press, 2014

 

Porgy and Bess: Controversy and Slow Progress

Controversy

First, a short history of Porgy and Bess.

The original “Highlights from Porgy and Bess” album, featuring cover art entirely at odds with the featured vocalists, white Met Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson.

In fall 1935, the galleries of Carnegie Hall rang for over four hours (including two intermissions) with the music of George Gershwin and the lyrics of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The private concert performance was of a new project, a grand experiment combining jazz, blues, spirituals, arias, and recitatives in a work that Gershwin described as a “folk opera,” Porgy and Bess, based on the novel Porgy by Heyward. The show became problematic for many reasons: though technically an opera featuring trained opera singers, it played according to Broadway’s schedule; the composer Gershwin had never written anything of such magnitude; while the production featured an all-black cast telling an African-American story, the author/librettist Heyward was white; the entire production crew from the director down to the stagehands to the violinists in the pit was white. In fact, the “official cast album” was recorded just days after the opera’s Broadway opening. It featured not the show’s original African-American leads, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, as the titular Porgy and Bess, but white Metropolitan Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, who sat in on the last few rehearsals before opening night to learn the music. Producers felt the album would be more palatable to wide audiences and therefore sell better. (Sidebar: black performers were not allowed at the Met. Duncan and Brown did finally collaborate on a Porgy and Bess album in 1940/42.)

The original Catfish Row as seen at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) in 1935. Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Controversy continued to surround the show: the performers protested the racial segregation at their Washington, D.C., venue, the National Theatre. Thanks especially to the efforts of Todd Duncan (Porgy), Porgy and Bess played to the National Theatre’s first integrated audience. Many more stories could be told.

Let’s fast-forward a decade to 1943, when Warner Brothers was hard at work on their fictionalized biopic of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. Like most biopics, the storyline stretched the truth, creating two fictional romances for George, and served more as an homage to Gershwin than an accurate portrayal of his life, allowing the opportunity for full performances of Rhapsody in BlueConcerto in F, “I Got Rhythm,” “Swanee,” and many more Gershwin hits.

Slow Progress

One of those other hits was “Summertime.” Judging by producers’ earlier resistance to recording an African-American Bess, one might expect the producers to opt again for a white star. But they did not ask Helen Jepson to sing. They called in Anne Brown, the original Bess, to reprise her role.

But progress seems to be a slow journey. As Alyce Key relates in an article for the Los Angeles Tribune in 1943 (this third incarnation of the paper was an African-American paper started by Almena Lomax praised for its fearless reporting), Miss Brown’s appearance in Hollywood was “shrouded in . . . more secrecy” than the WWII meetings of FDR and Churchill in Tehran, Potsdam, and Yalta:

Alyce Key’s article from the Los Angeles Tribune, September 6, 1943.

Fun fact: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $10,000 in 1943 is equal to $135,677.46 for one song. For comparison, Jennifer Lawrence got $500,000 for starring in The Hunger Games. The whole movie. $10,000 in 1943 was–and is–a lot of money for 3:40 of screen time.

As Alyce Key points out, people care. Gershwin cared enough to spend almost a decade working on Porgy and Bess. Todd Duncan cared enough to protest segregation at the National Theatre. The producers of Rhapsody in Blue cared enough to give Anne Brown a generous salary, but not enough to announce her involvement.

Progress, but slow progress. Maybe we just don’t care enough.

Hop on over to YouTube to check out Anne Brown’s reenacted performance of “Summertime”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxGMWfC7tm8.


“Key Notes by Alyce Key.” Los Angeles Tribune, Sep 6, 1943. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 12A55C9DAF0E8A10.

Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin: His Life and Music. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1973.