African American Broadway Musicals

May 1, 2016
Cicely Tyson

Black worker during World War II.After his triumph with “Oklahoma!, ” Oscar Hammerstein II turned to an even more improbable project, something that had preoccupied him for years: a new version of Bizet’s opera “Carmen, ” reset in the American South, using the original music with his own lyrics, and a cast composed entirely of black actors. Producer Billy Rose enthusiastically took up the show, hired a first-rate director and designer, and made plans to book the Broadway Theater for the end of 1943.

What Hammerstein and Rose didn’t have was a cast. The vocal and acting demands of the show, “Carmen Jones, ” required performers equally adept at opera and musical comedy, but the opportunities for black actors to learn their craft in these venues were woefully inadequate. For years, there hadn’t been enough roles for black talent, so the talent dried up; when roles did become available, there wasn’t enough talent to fill them. Rose engaged a music promoter named John Hammond to round up whatever singers he could find; he discovered his leads in a camera store, on the police force, and working in a navy yard.

“Carmen Jones” was a spectacular hit, opening half a year after “Oklahoma!” It also was the advance guard for a brief but impressive vogue for Broadway musicals that gave new prominence to black performers, sometimes in all-black shows, sometimes integrated with a white company. Broadway had not played host to so many black actors since the early 1920s; the important difference now was that these new shows were written, composed, and produced almost entirely by white artists. Still, the number of black performers in plays and musicals on Broadway in 1946 was more than five times the number before World War II began. In some ways, the increased professional opportunities for African Americans mirrored some slight social changes during the war. Although black army units were still segregated, there was a rise in social consciousness within white America.Lyricist Yip Harburg Some war production jobs, formerly closed to blacks, were opened up; black women also had an opportunity to move out of jobs as domestics into production work; the membership of the NAACP quadrupled; and such polar opposites as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hollywood worked to promote racial tolerance and inclusion between blacks and whites.

On Broadway, the results of this inclusion were mixed, in both style and quality. The trend had a brief prologue in 1940 with Vernon Duke’s simplistically drawn allegory, “Cabin in the Sky, ” but it was Hammerstein’s adaptation, with its steamy seductress, obsessed army officer, and macho prizefighter, that really packed a punch. In a kind of bookend to “This Is the Army, ” Harold Rome wrote a 1946 tribute to returning veterans, the revue “Call Me Mister.” It contained a musical number called “Red Ball Express, ” where a returning black serviceman who ran a successful supply line during the war is denied a job back home, due to prejudice.

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