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"I Am A Man": Black Musicals

This list is dedicated to the late Ron Taylor, who died of a heart attack 1/16/02. He was the voice of Audrey II in the original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors but is best remembered for the show he co-created and co-starred in, It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, which originated here in Denver (as a high school touring production, of all things) and went on to a successful run on Broadway, ultimately being nominated for four Tonys (including one for Ron). Here's a nice tribute to him in the Denver Post.

Musicals have typically attracted white audiences and catered to their tastes, but there have been a number of musicals whose primary characters are black or whose themes touch on issue important to black audiences. This is a list of such shows. I have deliberately omitted Civil War musicals in which the main black characters are slaves dependent upon white goodwill (Shenandoah and Bloomer Girl, among others) and musicals that, while they might have black characters and deal with racism, centered around a main character who was white (e.g., Finian's Rainbow). I am also excluding shows such as the London revival of Company, in which the lead character was played by a black actor but was not specifically "black." Ironically, most of the shows here were conceived and executed by whites.

Oh my--we've lost a lot of important black musical figures in the last year and a half.
Since 2002 we've lost:

Ron Taylor (Little Shop of Horrors, Ain't Nothin' But the Blues)--heart attack
Rosetta LeNoire
(The Hot Mikado, Cabin in the Sky, Bubbling Brown Sugar)--old age
Nell Carter
(Ain't Misbehavin')--natural causes, possibly diabetes-related
Luther Henderson
(Too many to list)--cancer
Gregory Hines
(Jelly's Last Jam)--cancer

Remember them fondly;
the musical stage would have been immeasurably poorer without their contributions.




Ain't Misbehavin' (Music by Fats Waller, lyrics by various)

The first really successful revue of a single composer's music since god knows when, Ain't Misbehavin' paved the way for a whole bunch of similar shows built around similar individuals. There's no real plot, but the whole show is set in a 1930s Harlem nightclub (which might explain why, when I saw the revival some years ago, the audience was entirely white). This show reminds us how good the composer's music is, and what a shame it is that so many people are unaware of it these days.


Billy No-Name (Music and lyrics by )

Off-Broadway, semi-autobiographical story of a young writer born in Harlem and what he encounters as he grows up. Sort of a pocket history of the civil rights movement and the black experience from the 20s to the late 60s. The ending is particularly interesting, as it provides three possible paths for the protagonist to take: the peaceable Martin Luther King Jr. route, the angry Black Panther route, and the me-first grab-what-you-can-as-you-assimilate route. None of the routes is presented as the "best" or the "worst," and the protagonist does not choose by the end of the show.


Black and Blue: A Musical Revue (Music and lyrics by various)

A 1989 revue using material from both black and white composers (e.g., Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Harold Arlen, Jimmy McHugh). The booklet calls it "a celebration, indeed an epiphany, of a great and marvelous cultural legacy: the classic African-American tradition of dance, song, and music." It's set in Paris, or at least "reflects a Parisian affection for the exotic" (the booklet is not clear on this, though the show originated in Paris), during the period between the wars. I can't tell if there's a thread running through the music or whether this is a sort of Bubbling Brown Sugar update revue.


Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk (Music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesnay; lyrics by Reg E. Gaines)

One of the most original shows on Broadway in years, this innovative musical told the history of blacks in America through sharply sarcastic songs and rhythm, most specifically tap dancing, which becomes a language all its own, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. It is an angry, proud, and deeply moving show that reminds us how far we've come and how far we still have to go. This is one of the very few rock/funk/rap musicals where the beat doesn't get in the way of the songs.


Bubbling Brown Sugar (Music and lyrics by various)

The late Rosetta LeNoire conceived this show, which was a revue of the work of composers such as Eubie Blake and Fats Waller before those individuals got whole shows devoted to them. Some of the material is very early, and there's more gospel and religious music than is typical for such productions. I believe the show was set in a Harlem nightclub (the concept predated Ain't Misbehavin' by a couple of years).


Cabin in the Sky (Music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche)

Little Joe Jackson is dying and destined to go to hell because of his wicked ways, but his wife Petunia intervenes, and Joe is granted six months to straighten himself out, though of course he faces many temptations along the way. A classic, with a number of hit songs in its day, but too religious for my tastes, and these days it has a rather patronizing feel towards its characters. The original (and the movie) featured the incomparable Ethel Waters; the off-Broadway revival, which according to my father sucks big time, had Rosetta Le Noire.


Carmen Jones (Music by Georges Bizet, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)

An all-black, updated version of Carmen set in the South. Carmen is a worker in a parachute factory; Don Jose is now Don, an army corporal; Micaela is now Cindy Lou, Joe's lover; and Escamillo is now Husky Miller, a boxer. When Hammerstein first conceived this show, he had immense trouble finding suitable actors for it because back then, black singers were discouraged (or actively barred) from becoming opera singers. With the help of a white empresario who was enthusiastic about discovering black talent, they plucked people from all kinds of non-acting positions--film scraper, cop, etc.


Chocolate Dandies (Music and lyrics by ?)

Read about this one in Ain't Misbehavin': The Story of Fats Waller. All I know about it is that it appeared in the 1920s.

The Civil War (Music and lyrics by Frank Wildhorn with Larry Gatlin)

This godawful show purported to tell the story of the Civil War from three different points of view: Northern, Southern, and slave. In practice it was a muddled and washed-out mess, a concert rather than a story. Frederick Douglass was one of only three named individuals in the entire show; everyone else was nameless and personality-less, which made it impossible to care when the slave family got torn apart. I wonder how the black cast members felt when, at the end of the touring production my parents and I saw (or, in my case, half-saw), the Confederate flag was given equal honors with the American flag.


Dinah (Music and lyrics by ?)

Read about this one in Ain't Misbehavin': The Story of Fats Waller. All I know about it is that it appeared in the 1920s.


Doctor Jazz (Music and lyrics by Buster Davis and others)

1975 flop musical about a black singer, her boyfriend, and her white manager during the rise of jazz. Lola Falana starred.


Dreamgirls (Music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Tom Eyen)

Based on the story of the Supremes, Dreamgirls tells the story of a trio of great R&B singers whose lead singer is fat and unattractive. In order to present a more glamourous image and cross over to the pop mainstream, a sleazy producer elevates one of the backup singers to lead status, and the original lead is pushed out. In real life, the original lead never did much and died at 32; in the musical, she goes on to achieve stardom on her own. This show made a star out of Jennifer Holliday; someone told me that when she sang her showstopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the audience was screaming in the aisles.


Eubie! (Music by Eubie Blake, lyrics by Noble Sissle)

The only thing I know about this show is that it existed and that it was produced in 1978. Can anyone help me out here? Was it more than a revue? Apparently there was a record and a TV presentation with nearly the entire original cast; maybe someday someone will rerelease these on CD/DVD.


Five Guys Named Moe (Music by Louis Jordan, lyrics by various)

A near-revue of Jordan' music; there's an attempt at stringing the songs together to tell a story about a guy named Nomax, who's having girl troubles, but the show is really just an excuse to stage a whole bunch of terrific songs. The version of "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby" as performed in Hey! Mr. Producer is an orgasmic moment, and in general this show was one of the snappiest evenings in the theater that I can remember. The final song of the first act is a conga line that the audience joins, and everyone congas out to the lobby and the bar for drinks.


Golden Boy (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)

The original source material was about an Italian boxer, but the musical changed the character into a black boxer so it could deal with issues about Harlem and exploitation (and so it could star Sammy Davis, Jr.). See also "The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: Everything Goes to Hell in the Second Act."


The Gospel at Colonus (Music by Bob Telson, lyrics by Lee Breuer)

I may have seen this show at the Denver Botanic Gardens about ten years ago. It's a reconception of Sopocles' Oedipus at Colonus through the framework of a Black Pentecostal church; most of the incidents in the story are "parable-like sermons." Lots of nice gospel chorus work, and Morgan Freeman provided some of the dialogue--dunno if it's the Morgan Freeman, though I assume so.


Grind (Music by Larry Grossman, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh)

Ben Vereen headed this very interesting flop show about a burlesque house at the early part of the century. Because of local laws, the only way the house can show both black and white performers on the stage is if the two casts perform separately and never interact backstage. The issues of racism and race relations pervade the entire show, and the black cast gets more to do than the white cast. After a series of setbacks, the two casts decide that they're one family and group together to defend one of their number.


Hallelujah, Baby! (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Ironically, this flop show would produce Jule Styne's only Tony, as well as a shared Best Actress Tony for Leslie Uggams. The three main characters do not age as they take part in American history, from post-slavery times to the Civil Rights period in which this show was created (1968), along the way dealing with race relations, limited opportunities for blacks, and the price of selling out to white audiences for money. A telling moment occurs when Uggams's character, having succeeded as a singer, attends a party where she is the only black person there. Her mother arrives and is mistaken for the maid. The show is not nearly as patronizing as it could have been, thanks in part to Robert Hooks's careful examination of the lyrics to ensure that they weren't racist. (He was the leading man.)


Harlem Song (Music and lyrics by various, book by George C. Wolfe)

A 2002 celebration of Harlem: its residents, history, anger, and hope, that was staged at the Apollo Theater. The music ranges from old classics to new material from George C. Wolfe and others.


House of Flowers (Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen)

Another flop show, this one dealt with prostitutes in Haiti (the bordello is called the House of Flowers, and the madames are known as horticulturalists). Pearl Bailey headed the distinguished cast and, according to Ken Mandelbaum, she apparently made lots of trouble backstage; the show also apparently had a gayer sensibility than 1954 audiences were prepared to accept.


It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues (Music and lyrics by various)

The title says it all: this is a historical revue of the blues in America, starting with African music. It focuses somewhat on white blues but is primarily concerned with black blues (there are five black and two white cast members). I saw this in its 1995 incarnation at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and I liked that relatively simple production better than the big Broadway version of 1999; too bad only the latter is available on CD.


Jamaica (Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg)

Arlen followed up his Haitian House of Flowers with this Caribbean tale of a woman who lives with her fisherman husband on a quiet little island but longs for the glamour of Manhattan. Of course, she ultimately chooses her quiet little island and her husband. The show starred Lena Horne, and if they'd been able to get Harry Belafonte as her husband (as was intended), instead of Ricardo Montalban, this would have been some powerhouse recording!


Jelly's Last Jam (Music by Jelly Roll Morton, with adaptation and additional material by Luther Henderson; lyrics by Susan Birkenhead)

One of the only such shows with an actual storyline, Jelly's Last Jam combined Ferdinand Joseph Le Menthe Morton's music (and altered lyrics) with the life story of the man himself. Seems that as a light-skinned Creole, he didn't consider himself black and was actively racist towards darker-skinned individuals, so the main goal of the story is getting him to acknowledge his African roots--and admitting he didn't invent jazz--after he dies but before he goes to hell. Too much ego and a disastrous move to New York City destroyed his career and his personal life, but oh, what a legacy he left!


Kwamina (Music and lyrics by Richard Adler)

1961 flop musical about a London-educated West African chief's son (Terry Carter) who falls in love with a white female doctor (Sally Ann Howes) while, behind them, cultures clash. Whatever book problems it had were probably overshadowed by the love affair, which was too daring for the audiences of the time (yet by today's standards would seem unbelievably tepid, with Carter showing his love by pushing his arm bracelet up Howes's arm--hoo ha!).


The Life (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, and book by David Newman, Gasman, and Coleman)

Though the prostitutes of this story belong to various races, and there's a subplot with a white chick from Minnesota, the main characters are black.


Little Ham (Music by Judd Woldin, lyrics by Richard Engquist and Judd Woldin)

This very recent off-Broadway offering by the composer of Raisin "is a musical story of love and loyalty set in the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance." It ran from the fall of 2001 until December 2002.


Liza (Music and lyrics by ?)

I read about this one in Ain't Misbehavin': The Story of Fats Waller. All I know about it is that it appeared in the 1920s.


Look to the Lilies (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn)

Flop musical based on Lilies of the Field.


Lost in the Stars (Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson)

One of only a small number of musicals set in Africa (Kwamina, Aida, Sarafina!, and The Lion King being the others), this one was based on the novel Cry, the Beloved Country. The main character is a black South African minister whose son participated in the robbery and accidental murder of the son of a white bigot. The bigot, who supports apartheid, eventually is won over by the minister's courage and they become friends. Weill's last musical.


Memphis Bound! (Adapted by Don Walker and Clay Warnick)

A flop musical of the 1940s based on HMS Pinafore, it starred Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Avon Long, Frank Wilson, Billy Daniels, Sheila Guyse, and Thelma Carpenter; the choreographer was Al White. Definitely an A-level cast in a musical with a D-level book.


Once on This Island (Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)

French Antilles fairy tale about a young island girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with the mulatto son of a wealthy landowner. When he's injured, she makes a pact with the gods: her life for his. He survives and is grateful but rejects her love, and the gods, by way of reward or compensation for her sacrifice and disappointment, grant her eternal life by turning her into a tree.


One Mo' Time (Music and lyrics by various)

This new show "recreates a hot, sultry night at New Orleans' Lyric Theatre in 1926, home to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey among others." Dunno if it's been recorded.


Porgy and Bess (Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)

The classic Gershwin musical that has since entered the opera repertoire, and one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre ever written. It gave us a number of standards ("I Got Plenty o' Nuttin," "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "It Ain't Necessarily So").


Purlie (Music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell)

If you ever wondered where Cleavon Little came from that he got the lead role in Blazing Saddles when it was originally earmarked for Richard Pryor, this is the place. He played the exuberant minister Purlie who overcomes a nasty white guy or two to buy a church for his flock in rural post-WWII Georgia, and also gets married in the process.


Ragtime (Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)

The major thread in this three-thread story is that of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime musician with a car and a fiance, Sarah. He loses both, the first to bigoted white firemen, the second to murderous presidential bodyguards. Sarah's death pushes him over the edge, and he goes on a rampage, killing firemen in the name of justice. He's ultimately killed, but he and Sarah have left a legacy in the form of their small son, who will be raised by a white family.


Raisin (Music by Judd Woldin, lyrics by Robert Brittan)

Based, of course, on Raisin in the Sun, this is the story of Walter Lee Younger, a poor man with a dream: he wants to open his own liquor store with the money from his newly dead father's insurance. His mother, however, wants to use the money to buy a house in a nice white neighborhood. The liquor store business never works out because Walter Lee's partner absconds with the money, but enough is left to buy the house. This being the 1950s, the white folks in the neighborhood try to get the family to change their minds about moving in by offering to buy back the house. Walter Lee is tempted, but ultimately the family refuses to be bought out.


Runnin' Wild (Music and lyrics by ?)

I read about this one in Ain't Misbehavin': The Story of Fats Waller. All I know about it is that it appeared in 1923, it was produced by Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles (both black), who produced Shuffle Along, and it introduced the Charleston to the North.

Friendly reader D. Grapes supplied this information: "The music in Runnin' Wild (1923) was by James P. Johnson. Its most important contribution was the inclusion of the dance we know of as "The Charleston," as it introduced it to American society, thereby setting the stage for the Charleston dance craze." (information available in Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans: a history, 3rd edition)


Sarafina! The Music of Liberation (Music and lyrics by Mbongeni Ngema, with additional songs by Hugh Masekela)

This stirring show is set in 1976 in Soweto, South Africa, when 200,000 black students protested the official decree that they had to use Afrikaans in their classrooms instead of Zulu. The brutal suppression of these students sparked the violents struggles that typified South Africa for many years, until apartheid was overturned. The show follows a fictional class of students, centered around the political activist Sarafina, who experience considerable brutality but maintain hope for the future. This is one of the very few musicals where a substantial number of the songs are sung in another language--in this case, Zulu.


Show Boat (Music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)

The one exception to my rule: Although the main characters in Show Boat are white, the most interesting ones are black or part-black, and they get all the best songs. Anyway, after having heard Michel Bell as Joe, I can't possibly leave this one out. Besides, the bits about miscegenation and the hard life of black stevedores are still relevant-ish--they were painfully relevant in 1927, when this show first came out, and marked the most serious themes in a musical up to that time.


Shuffle Along (Music by Eubie Blake, lyrics by Noble Sissle)

Apologies for the title, which was acceptable back in 1921. This was the first successful musical entirely created, produced, and acted by blacks. The plot dealt with two mayoral candidates in Jimtown, Dixieland: venal Steve Jenkins and virtuous Harry Walton (prompting the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry"), plus a corrupt police chief. The bad guys are elected, but the good guys eventually get them thrown out of office. I believe there has been an attempt to update this show to bring it in tune with today's attitudes, and I suspect that Eubie! was also an attempt to divorce the wonderful songs from their embarrassing source material. There were three titular sequels to this show, the last being staged in 1952.


Simply Heavenly (Music by David Martin, lyrics by Langston Hughes)

Hughes adapted several stories he wrote about the character Jess Simple into this unappreciated flop show, which is considered by Ken Mandelbaum "perhaps the best black musical ever." The plot has to do with Jess's attempt to raise money to pay for his divorce from his estranged wife, so that he can marry his sweetheart Joyce. There are several interesting points made; for one, Jess ends up refusing to let his color be his excuse for his problems, and for another, he rejects Joyce until he can solve his problems.


Sophisticated Ladies (Music by Duke Ellington, lyrics by various)

Revue of the music of Duke Ellington. I know almost nothing about this one, save that it was far more elaborate a production than the other composer-tribute-revues in this list, with a big cast, lots of dancing, flashy costumes, and a 21-piece onstage orchestra. Why is this not available on CD? [It is, but it's rare--just got it.]


St. Louis Woman (Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer)

Arlen had a thing for black-related musicals; this is his third on this list. Conceptually similar to Porgy and Bess, this mostly forgotten show had one of those Encores Cast Recordings in 1998, but the original is also available on CD. The out-of-print OCR is better than the concert cast recording; the original stars were the Nicholas Bros., Pearl Bailey, and Ruby Hill; get it if you can. Della Green falls for Li'l Augie, a jockey with a winning streak, though she's already the woman of Biglow Brown, a saloon owner. Brown is eventually killed, but he puts a curse on Li'l Augie that ends the streak and Della's affection for the jockey. The two eventually come back together, though.


The Tap Dance Kid (Music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Robert Lorick)

In a turnabout of the "dreams will get me out of poverty" theme that many of these musicals have, this one concerns an upper-middle-class black family whose son wants to be a tap dancer. It was based on a TV play, which in turn was based on a children's novel, Nobody's Family Is Going to Change, by Louise Fitzhugh (author of the better-known Harriet the Spy). Savion Glover made his Broadway debut in this show at the age of 10. That's all I know about this one; anyone have any more info?


Timbuktu (Music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, book by Luther Davis)

Retooled all-black version of Kismet set in Timbuktu in the Ancient Empire of Mali, West Africa, in the year 1361 (of Islam 752).


The Wiz (Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls)

The Wizard of Oz done funk-style. This was one of the first musicals I ever saw, way the hell back in the mid-1970s on New Year's Eve. Even if Stephanie Mills, the original Dorothy, toured with it, I didn't see her, but some understudy instead. From the picture in Broadway Musicals Show by Show, it appears that the costumer designer for Starlight Express substantially based that show's train costumes on the costume for the Tin Man in The Wiz.


Honorable Mention

Black Broadway (Music and lyrics by...?)

I had never even heard of this show until I got a big book of backstage photos of Broadway folks and saw several pictures of participants. I have no idea whether it was a special short-term production or one that was intended to run for a while. Can anyone enlighten me?

A Broadway Musical (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)

Flop musical about sleazy white producers who want to turn a black writer's serious play into a musical.

Big River (Music and lyrics by Roger Miller)

Based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so there's some pertinent stuff with the runaway slave Jim.

Guys and Dolls (Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser)

There was a well-received all-black cast for this show.

Hair (Music by Galt McDermot, lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado)

The main characters are white, but there are important subthreads dealing with racism, dying for a government that treats your people like crap, and loving people of different colors ("White Boys" is sung by black women, and "Black Boys" is sung by white women). The character of Abraham Lincoln is traditionally played by a black woman.

Hello, Dolly! (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman)

The all-black version of this show, headed by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, revitalized it and was successful enough to merit its own cast recording.

The Hot Mikado (Music by W. S. Gilbert, lyrics by Arthur Sullivan; adapted by David Bell and Rod Bowman)

This is a swing/jazz/blues reinterpretation of the classic light opera, set in the 1940s. I can't tell if the original show had an all-black cast--revivals seem to be mixed casts--but I know Rosetta Le Noire was part of the original cast. This looks like a show desperately in need of a full-scale Broadway revival and an American cast recording. The only cast recording I could find was a London one from 1995.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Music and lyrics by various?)

This is a musical play rather than a musical, as far as I can tell, but I'd be willing to reclassify this on the advice of someone who's seen it and can enlighten me.

No Strings (Music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers)

The first black-white love affair in a Broadway musical, but the issue of race is barely dealt with.

Parade (Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)

Although the story is about a Jewish man wrongly accused of murder in Georgia, the show has some telling moments by the black characters, who are A) gleeful that anti-Semitism rather than racism drives the trial, since there are several black suspects, and B) hopeful that, because of the Northern outcry over this obvious travesty of justice, officials will also start to notice the legal abuses perpetuated against black individuals as well.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner)

With a creative team like this, how could this show have failed so miserably? Easy: it tried to encapsulate all the presidents up to that time (1976) and their First Ladies in a single evening--and having a single actor and actress play each role. The presidents play against a pair of black servants who, like the characters in Hallelujah, Baby!, never age (except to have a baby, who is born into freedom during Andrew Johnson's term). Apparently, part of the book deals with the presidents and their effect on black history.

The Wild Party (Music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa or by Andrew Lippa)

From everything I can gather, the focus of the original poem was on two white characters, but it's set in Harlem and has a number of important black characters as well.

Dishonorable Mention

My Darlin' Aida (Music by , Lyrics by )

A1989 flop musical that tried to do for Aida what Carmen Jones did for Carmen, transplanting the story to the Civil War era and transforming Aida into a half-black slave. Too bad they cast a white actress (Elaine Malbin) in the role.

Nefertiti (Music by David Spangler, lyrics by Christopher Gore)

This mid-70s flop musical also cast a white actress (Andrea Marcovicci) in the title role....

All non-lyric material copyright 2002-2003, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved

I invite additions and corrections to this list, or comments about the examples above. If I like your whole letter I'll ask if I can publish it on my letters page.

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