The crowd gaped as the scarlet curtains ascended and unveiled greeting, not from the beautiful Ziegfeld girls common to the day, but from a chorus of sweating, toiling blacks chanting, “Negros all work on the Mississippi, Negros all work while the white folks play” (Kern and Hammerstein II). In the 1900s, a wave of artistic responsibility ushered in a shift of Broadway musical themes. Instead of writing lighthearted comedy, composers such as Kern, Rodgers, Gershwin and Hammerstein crafted serious pieces that reflected upon issues in society such as inequality. Musicals such as Show Boat, West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, Finian’s Rainbow and South Pacific entertained both the stereotypical images of non-Anglo-Saxons and the idea of assimilation. Although much controversy surrounded the portrayal of people of different races on Broadway, the lives of composers, the content of musicals, and opportunities for minority artists illustrate that the main goal of musicals was not to derogatorily label different races, but to express truth and encourage acceptance.
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A study of the lives of composers such as George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II demonstrates that musical pieces were written to express appreciation or approval of assimilation and of minority culture. George Gershwin, for one, was born in New York (Levert 118- 20 asdf 13) to immigrant Russian-Jewish parents, Rose and Morris Gershvin (Mitchell 9 asd 15). Rose and Morris raised their second-generation American children among Italian, Irish, Polish and Jewish neighbors (Mitchell 12 asd 15). This multi-ethnic upbringing built the foundation of George Gershwin’s acceptance of different races. Gershwin’s tolerance of different ethnicities is further highlighted through accounts of a young George enjoying ragtime, a variation of black dance music, played by Mississippi “raggers” such as black musician Jim Reese Europe (Mitchell 12 asdf 16, a).
As time went on, Gershwin created a new sound by fusing his acquired classical training with the ragtime he heard from in earlier days (Mitchell 24- 5, 37 asdf 17, 14). This was utilized in his 1922 show, Blue Monday (b). Although Blue Monday garnered few favorable reviews because it held a tragic ending and told of the black community (Vernon 13 asdf 22), George Gershwin had opened new frontiers to which other artists like Jerome Kern followed. Gershwin’s creation of American music that encouraged racial acceptance later encouraged his own family to assimilate and become more Americanized, changing their name from “Gershvin” to “Gershwin” (Mitchell 29- 30 asdf 19).
Despite Blue Monday’s lack of success, Gershwin was still open to composing Porgy and Bess, a musical centered on African-Americans. This showed his desire for people to understand those of different races. Although it took him seven years, Gershwin obtained rights to Heyward’s novel, Porgy and Bess, in 1933 (San Francisco Opera asdf 11). In order to accurately portray African-American culture to Anglo-Saxons, Gershwin traveled to Folly Island and stayed with the Geechees, whose ancestors had been slaves (Mitchell 44-6 and Swain 57 asdfr 21, 20). Gershwin absorbed Geechee music and movement through observing Island worship rituals which included chanting, shouting, clapping, tapping, swaying, praying and forming of religious circles (Mitchell 44-6 and Swain 57 asdf 21 and 20). Gershwin’s positive relationship with these blacks can be seen through his participation in their rituals. One account relates that Gershwin was so accepted by the Geechees that he joined in performing religious rituals, even managing to obtain the center spot in a religious circle, which was usually reserved for the Geechee leaders (Mitchell 44-46). Such good relations with blacks provided incentive for Gershwin to attempt to convey the need for change, acceptance of races, and unity for America in his adaptation of Porgy and Bess. American director Francesca Zambello spoke of Porgy and Bess, saying that “It’s about class, race, economic disadvantage, all these things that separate people from one another and prevent us from having a harmonious society” (San Francisco Opera).
Although many African-Americans such as Duke Ellington, Ralph Matthews, and Hall Johnson felt that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was highly stereotypical (Swain 57 asdf 21, 45), Gershwin denied that his aim in creating Porgy and Bess was to put down the African-American race; instead, he shared, Porgy and Bess was written to express an accurate picture of the race as he saw it (Henderson and Bowers 99). In order to maintain true to African-American culture, Gershwin incorporated spirituals and prominent African-American music forms in Porgy and Bess as Kern had in Show Boat (Bering 68-9 asdf 46). Gershwin’s brother, Ira, who collaborated with George on Porgy and Bess, also attempted to retain the black flavor through using dialect (Bering 68-9 asdf 46) and non-standard grammar. Apart from attempting to present the truth and encourage assimilation of blacks, Gershwin’s heart for the advancement of African-Americans is shown through the fact that the show had an all-black cast despite the prominence of Jim Crow laws. Gershwin insisted on having an all-black cast and even refused to collaborate with the Metropolitan Opera because he knew that to do so would mean hiring white actors in blackface (San Francisco Opera).
Following Gershwin’s lead in writing racially themed musicals, Oscar Hammerstein II decided to work with Jerome Kern in adapting Edna Ferber’s novel, Show Boat, into a musical. Although Kern was born to immigrant Jewish- German parents, Kern was not strongly encouraged to embrace his ethnicity. His parents supported Americanization and attempted to downplay their ethnic difference, so Kern’s Jewish- German side did not have a big influence on his composing (Zollo). However, Kern’s openness to assimilation is seen through his goal of preserving Edna Ferber’s original intent with Show Boat (Green 319 asdf 36) despite the fact that the message was controversial at the time. For example, Kern wrote “Ol’ Man River,” “a song of resignation with an implied protest” (Hammerstein qtd. in Zollo asdf 36) which was sung by an African-American. Like Gershwin, Kern fused African-American music with classical music to retain a black atmosphere and to communicate the message of the piece- that blacks were suffering unjustly- across to the audience. This is shown through Kern’s usage of traditional black music when composing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (Bering 54-5 asdf 60). Aside from his written work, Kern hired black actors for Show Boat, also demonstrating his agreement with assimilation.
Oscar Hammerstein II, who collaborated on Show Boat with Kern, was a third-generation Prussian Jew. Originally named Oscar Greeley- Clendenning Hammerstein in honor of Horace Greeley (Wickware 107), Hammerstein carried on the work of his namesake in encouraging the assimilation of blacks. Through the use of dialects in his lyrics, he preserved the black flavor and tradition so that white audiences could better understand blacks.
Apart from Gershwin, Kern and Hammerstein, second generation American Richard Rodgers also explored racial themes in his compositions (Zollo). Originally named Richard Rogazinsky, Rodger’s family strayed from their Russian-Jewish roots and became more Americanized by assimilating and changing the family name to Rodgers (Zollo). Although Rodgers, like Kern, did not observe Jewish customs, his work with Oscar Hammerstein II produced musicals such as Flower Drum Song and South Pacific, which explored assimilation and themes like love transcending racial barriers (Henderson and Bowers 148-51). Although Asians were often segregated in that era (as seen in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was repealed later in 1943), Rodgers decided to hire a few Asian actors such as Pat Suzuki for Flower Drum Song (Gottfried 195). Furthermore, Richard Rodger’s family was the first to hear Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and despite the fact that the musical was highly race oriented, Rodgers expressed his appreciation by exclaiming “That was a Christmas Eve we shall never forget” (Mitchell 50). His family background, reaction to Porgy and Bess and his collaborations with Hammerstein II all support speculation that Rodgers, too, felt the need to encourage acceptance of race through his art.
Despite showing prominent discrimination, the musical content, plots and lyrics of some musicals during the time period also exhibited strong ideas reflecting integration or the need for positive treatment of non-Anglo-Saxons. In Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, Loving, a white man, moves to Washington, D.C. with his African-American bride after threats of incarceration due to miscegenation laws. They eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted them permission for their interracial marriage. However, this case did not occur until 1967 (Cruz and Berson), 40 years after Broadway’s Show Boat touched on the injustice of outlawing interracial marriage.
Show Boat, 1927, examined the injustices of the Jim Crow laws through the story of Julie, a mixed Creole performer who keeps her heritage a secret because she is married to Steve, a white man (Henderson and Bowers 240 asdf 59). Due to her mulatto heritage, Julie knew songs that “only colored folks knew” (Green 60 asdf 62 ex. Encyclopedia MT), and as a result of her singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” police approached to investigate whether or not Julie had black blood (Rudinger 53-4 asdf 55) in order to decide if she was guilty of miscegenation. To protect Julie, Steve drank a drop of her blood, portraying the absurdity of the “one drop rule” (AHHHH FIND THIS). According to Booker T Washington, the “one drop rule” stated that the amount of black blood did not matter in classifying a person because even a single drop of black blood made an individual ‘black’ (Cruz and Berson asdf 37.) The fact that Julie’s black heritage was initially kept a secret allowed time for the white audience to shape a positive view of her. Her close relationship with her husband Steve and her friend Magnolia, both white, further emphasized the point that whites and blacks are not, in essence, very different. (FIND SHOW BOAT Aer) The show held a strong undertone that instead of segregating, people of different races should integrate.
Apart from mentioning miscegenation, Show Boat also cultivated compassion from whites through illustrating the hard lives that black laborers led. The opening number, “The Levee at Natchez on the Mississippi” included African-American actors singing about unending toiling for blacks. The same tune is repeated later on in “Ol’ Man River” as Joe and the chorus sings wistfully about how free the river is, saying
He don’t plant taters, he don’t plant cotton, an dem dat plants em’ is soon forgotten, but ol’ man river, he jes’ keeps rollin a long You an me, we sweat an strain, body all ach-in an racked wid pain. Tote dat barge! Lift dat bale! â€¦I git weary an sick of tryin, I’m tired of livin, an skeered of dyin, but ol’ man rier, he jes keeps rollin along…Don’t look up an’ don’t look down, youi don’t dast make de white boss frown; bend yo knees an bow yo head, an pull dat rope until yore dead. (Kern and Hammerstein II 47-55 asdf 61)
While Gershwin’s Blue Monday had explored racial issues and portrayed African-American tragedy, the show had not garnered much fame, so white audiences of Show Boat’s time still associated Broadway with lightheartedness and comedy. As a result, Show Boat’s use of strong words like “Niggers” (Bering 53-4) and its exploration of racial issues in society initially shocked many (Ms Farisss’s showboattt). However, Show Boat’s influential value and deep message soon captured white audiences, and it earned the title of “an American masterpiece” from the New York Times (New York Times qtd. in Zollo). The vivid images and strong lyrics in Show Boat allowed white audience members to step into the shoes of black laborers and further understand blacks through experiencing African-American woe. Other pieces such as “Queenie’s Ballyhoo” (MISS FARIS VID) stayed true to black culture (Ganzl 193) and gave the white audience a taste of black spirit. Through appealing to individual whites, Show Boat encouraged understanding and better treatment of blacks.
Show Boat provided the precedent for Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg’s Finian’s Rainbow, a story portraying the value of trust (Green 126-7 asdf 9). Apart from expressing the importance of trust, Harburg and Lane associated evil with racism through making their villain racist. According to the plot, due to the evil senator’s racism, he tries to thwart the success of non Anglo-Saxon farmers. This angers Og, a leprechaun, who turns the senator black (Hilgart). After becoming black, the formerly racist senator becomes more open minded and even forms a quartet with three other blacks (Druxman 124). In “The Begat,” the number after the senator’s transformation, the senator sings about the origin of different races starting from Adam and Eve. He expresses that, “The white begat, the red begatâ€¦ the Greeks begat, the Swedes begat â€¦starting from Genesis, they begatâ€¦so bless them allâ€¦” (Lane and Harburg), showing his willingness to admit that all races are equal.
Apart from discouraging discrimination of blacks, discrimination against Irish people was also mentioned in Finian’s Rainbow. Due to the widely expressed racist viewpoints of influential individuals such as President Roosevelt, European immigrants from the early 1900s were also discriminated against by whites (Cruz and Berson adsf 26). Finian’s Rainbow countered the wave of discrimination through numbers like, “When the Idle Poor become the Idle Rich”. In this song the Irish protagonist, Finian, dreams of a future where there is no discrimination and sings “â€¦No one will see the Irish or the Slav in youâ€¦This discrimination will no longer be” (Lane and Harburg 85-98 asdf 9).
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Two years after Finian’s Rainbow, South Pacific graced the Broadway stage. Set in the Pacific, the story revolves around the relationships of two interracial couples. Nellie Forbush falls for Emile de Becque, a shady Frenchman who had committed murder at a young age. Although Nellie is willing to disregard Emile’s dark past, her Anglo-Saxon upbringing complicates her feelings towards Emile’s French- islander mixed children. Her confusion and racist view put a barrier in her relationship with Emile, and the two separate. Joe Cable, like Nellie, is unsure how to act regarding his feelings for Liat, an islander, because of his racist upbringing (Ganzl 277 asdf 64). He expresses his background in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” stating that, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade” (Henderson and Bowers.) Like Nellie, Joe’s racism ultimately breaks his relationship with Liat. Although Joe and Liat do not get back together, Nellie realizes that love transcends race and manages to salvage her relationship with Emile. Performed to an audience full of whites who had been brought up in the same way Joe and Nellie had, South Pacific spread the message that love is greater than race (Ganzl 176-7 asdf 66). Like Show Boat, its celebration of interracial marriage broke century old barriers and challenged whites to question the decency of Jim Crow laws.
Following Show Boat and South Pacific, West Side Story explored the idea of love being greater than race through retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet, substituting racial feuds for clan disagreements. The plot tells of an American, Tony, who falls in love with Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant. Due to background and racial differences, their relationship is disapproved of by their friends and families. In one scene, Anita, Maria’s sister-in-law, overtly speaks against interracial relationships, warning Maria to “Stick to your own kind” (Bernstein and Sondheim 180-90). Maria though, replies in the same song that “â€¦my heart knows they’re wrongâ€¦I don’t care what he is” (Bernstein and Sondheim 180-90). In the end, Tony gets involved in stopping a fight between the Puerto Ricans and the Americans (Green 441-2 asdf 75). He dies in the process, and the gangs lay down their arms in the realization that feuding between races has gone too far (FIND THIS FIND THIS AHHH). This realization reveals West Side Story’s theme: that there should be interracial harmony instead of destructive racial disagreements.
Aside from encouraging assimilation through racially themed musicals, Broadway set an example for America in giving minority artists opportunities and recognition. The Wiz, for example, presented the Wizard of Oz with an all black ensemble in a ghetto setting (Henderson and Bowers 219 asdf 2). Apart from The Wiz, shows like Flower Drum Song also provided minority actors with an opportunity to work at a professional level. Employment of minority actors in the early to mid 1900s is significant because artists in some other art forms like ballet and classical music found difficulty in obtaining the right to perform their art professionally. Arthur Mitchell explained that as a black dancer, he had to outshine his white competitors (Cummings asdf 9). Although some may argue that producers and directors in the theatre business often lost opportunities to whites in the same way black performers in other businesses did, Broadway set a precedent because it hired non- white actors for their ethnicity.
While some may argue that black actors and actresses were employed in the film industry as early as the 1920s, film actors often played comedic characters that were stereotyped as opposed to the more serious characters seen in Show Boat and Porgy and Bess. Others may argue that Jazz music had well known performers like Louis Armstrong. However, Jazz, unlike Broadway, was targeted at a predominantly black audience.
Minority artists like Paul Robeson used their opportunities to vocalize equality through art. Paul Robeson, son of a slave, lived during an age when racial segregation was significant. In addition to his family background, Robeson learned about discrimination himself through firsthand experience, being discriminated against and victimized because he was black. As a result, he had great understanding of the detrimental affects of discrimination. This prompted him to take a stand for equality, as seen through the fact that he would only perform for mixed audiences (Clarke asdf 42). Aside from taking a stand through action, Paul Robeson expressed disapproval for unjust violence against blacks through giving speeches (Clarke asdf 41). His influential status as a well-known black performer drew attention to his belief that all should be equal. However, Robeson remarked that while he enjoyed success, many other blacks did not even have basic rights. (Clarke asd 42). Paul Robeson encouraged whites to accept blacks and allow them to “have decent homes, decent jobs, and the dignity that belongs to every human being!” (Robeson qtd. in Clarke asdf 42).
Along with the employment of minority actors, Broadway started accepting works by black composers. Shuffle Along was written by an African-American composer, Eubie Blake, in the 1920s. This show was believed to have launched the Harlem Renaissance, which enhanced the rights of black artists. The fact that the Truman campaign utilized a song from Shuffle Along made the show better known (Tanner) and also shows the power of musical theatre in encouraging assimilation and acceptance because a black musical spoke out to a white presidential candidate in a time when segregation was prominent. Other shows composed by black artists like Runnin’ Wild, 1923, popularized black dance (Tanner). Audiences seeing shows like Runnin’ Wild accepted black culture through accepting their dance and music because it was so integrated in the entertainment. Later on, A Raisin in the Sun written by a black composer, Lorraine Hansberry, (DO I NEED TO CITE THIS?) actually received Tony award nominations in 1960 despite the fact that segregation still existed during the civil rights movement (FINDD). While film actress Hattie McDaniel had received an Oscar in 1939, she received the nomination for playing a stereotyped black maid. The Academy did not nominate black written screenplays until 1972, 12asdf years after A Raisin in the Sun.
The hiring of minority actors encouraged formation of all-black groups like the Negro Ensemble Company. These groups often put on musicals focused on black life, such as Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and The River Niger. The latter ran on Broadway for eight months (Cummings asdf 35). The increase of actor groups dedicated to black rights demonstrated the fact that minority actors understood the importance of using art to encourage audiences to further understand black culture or accept blacks as equals. Broadway’s toleration of black groups putting on black shows increased openness and willingness to let blacks use the stage as a platform for proclaiming assimilation.
A surge of black artists and musicals attracted black audiences to participate in art. Judith Cummings said of The Wiz that:
For the first time in the memory of most black theatre observers, black peopleâ€¦find themselves with a choice among Broadway shows that offer them something to identify withâ€¦nearly a dozen others from this season, use black artistic talent or offer a glimpse of black lifeâ€¦ (Cummings asdf 71).
The fact that blacks sat in audiences shows an extreme growth from black rights of the earlier 1900s because seeing musicals meant spending money and having time for leisure activities, a luxury blacks did not have in earlier time periods. Also, the fact that blacks, too, enjoyed musicals showed the white audiences that blacks were not, essentially, very different from whites, furthering the aim of assimilation. Blacks too, could have been emboldened through realization that as a race, they had succeeded in their aim to gain some recognition since the early1900s. This confidence could have encouraged them to lobby for even more rights.
In essence, the lives of composers such as Kern, Rodgers, Gershwin and Hammerstein reflected the fact that they accepted or encouraged assimilation and wrote musicals in support of their views. Plot and lyrics from musicals such as Show Boat, South Pacific, West Side Story and Finian’s Rainbow also either encouraged acceptance through reflecting the idea of overcoming racial barriers or discouraged segregation through demonstrating the harmful qualities of racial discrimination. Hiring minority actors gave blacks a platform to voice the injustice of segregation. Actors like Paul Robeson and those in the Negro Ensemble Company were able to publicly express hope for assimilation. Black centered musicals like A Raisin in the Sun encouraged understanding of blacks and attracted black audiences. Today, Broadway has carried on its legacy through musicals like Wicked, which explored unwillingness to accept those with a different skin color (DO I HAVE TO CITE THIS?). Asian thespians like Filipina Lea Salonga have also played roles written for white actors such as Eponine in Les Miserables and Cinderella in Cinderella. A 2002 movie version of Gershwin’s Cinderella featured a cast with an Asian prince, white stepmother, black queen, black stepsisters and a black Cinderella. Casting without regard to original ethnicity of characters shows acceptance and rejection of race-based separation, and the racial integration of today would not exist today without the pioneer work of Broadway in the early to mid 1900s.
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