Diversity and the Birth of Broadway: Early Black Authors of the American Musical

>> Kazem Abdullah: Hi Good evening I’m Kazem Abdullah from the Library’s music division, and I’m please to be introducing tonight’s lecture, Diversity and the Birth of Broadway, Early Black Authors of the American Musical Our speaker tonight is Ben West, founder of the Unsung Musicals Company and a 2017 recipient of the Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center Mr. West is a noted writer, producer, and musical theater artist and historian whose work always includes a wide-ranging group of interesting projects in several arenas Tonight’s talk offers a spotlight on black authors and creators of musical theater from Bob Cole to Duke Ellington Over the past few years, we’ve enjoyed working with Ben West during his copious visits for extensive research in the music division’s vast music theater archive So, we are really, really delighted to have the opportunity tonight to shine a light on our collections Please check out our display tonight, and it’s just a small sampling of works by some little known and very significant creators of the genre who helped lay the foundation for an American art form And now, please welcome Ben West [ Applause ] >> Ben West: Good evening I am Best West I am a musical theater artist and historian I will start with a little bit of background on myself My focus and my passion is two-fold First, illuminating the intersection of past, present, and future, which speaks to both the cyclical nature of our society and also how successive generations of audiences and artists continue to influence one another Second, realizing the American musical as a reflection of American consciousness, which is to say that it captures our social, cultural, and political sensibilities at any given moment in time To speak to these two themes, there are two quotes, of which I am particularly fond One is from Harold Rome, who was a terrific songwriter, wrote many revue, and a few book musicals, Fanny, Destry Rides Again among them, and he said, “whether you want to be original or whether you want to be conventional, you still have to know what has been done in order to be either.” That’s something that I really believe and am fond of The other quote is from Yip Harburg, who you’ll know as the lyricist of the Wizard of Oz and a number of other musicals, and he said, “a songwriter is really a journalist of time with music.” These two quotes speak to me personally and artistically and guide much of my work The two broader themes, more crucially, provide the foundation for all of my work My current projects, in particular, are about the evolution of the American musical from the 1800s through 1999, detailing the journey of the art form itself and closely examining the authors, the craftsmen, the creators of the form What does this mean? For example, in 1907, speaking of the relative state of the form, the New York Times wrote, from 1907 about the musical, “Fashions in plays may change, but musical comedy remains about the same from beginning to end It is taken as a matter of course that the tunes will be reminiscent, the characters are nearly always the same, and the comedy, in many of these shows, is their saddest feature There are as a rule only two classes of musical comedy, the good and the bad.” Likewise, around that time, one of the American musicals’ most prolific book writers, Harry B. Smith, spoke about the form and his writing process in particular He said, “A libretto is a sort of fourfold evolution The first of the series is the producer with the contract The second is the star with his or her peculiar hobbles The third is the composer with his decided points And the last of all is the librettist with his rhymes and words, ready to adapt himself to the demands of the other three He may flatter himself that he is the first, but he is really the fourth wheel of the coach.” Now, let us jump forward to 1947 with My Fair Lady

and Camelot author, Alan J. Lerner, assessing the relative state of the form at that time, this is 30 years later And he says, “The musical theater in America is becoming a vital medium of dramatic expression With words, music, and movement blended together in complete synchronization, a real art form is revealed.” This is just an example, of course, of the larger whole, and I’m essentially tracing the line from minstrelsy and vaudeville in the 1800s through Harry B. Smith in the early 1900s, through Alan J. Lerner and the so-called Golden Age, all the way through to the emergence of Jason Robert Brown and Janine Tesori in the 1990s, all the while looking at how the art form and its architects evolved alongside social, cultural, and artistic changes, taking too, I should note, a comprehensive approach, understanding and incorporating the incalculable influences of outside factors To that point, Harry B. Smith and Alan J. Lerner are both white males, as were the majority of the most prominent practitioners in the history of the form However, there were a significant number of female and African American authors who were instrumental in furthering the form throughout its history, reaching as far back as the 1800s Tonight, we will focus on the later contingent And with that, I want to open it up and ask, can anyone name any African American authors of the American musical working in the 20th Century, 1900 to — go for it, shout it out [ Inaudible Comment ] Awesome [ Inaudible Comment ] Yes [ Inaudible Comment ] Yeah. [laughter] You cheated He stole from a previous lecture No, I’m kidding, I’m kidding [inaudible] Dunbar And Miller and Lyles You mean, Blake, absolutely So, as you can see, or as we’re starting to see, there are actually an incredible number of African American authors who wrote for the musical theater in the 20th Century, particularly in and around the first three decades In fact, all four folks that were mentioned here were working within the first three decades of the 20th Century I will also note that this was, as we all know, a particularly turbulent time of racism and segregation in which these artists were working And that is where we will focus this evening So, to begin, I want to take a look at a few of these intrepid, often overlooked, early black authors of the American musical [ Music ] So, as you can see here, there were actually quite a number of African American artists writing for the musical theater in roughly the first three decades of the 20th Century These are only a handful of them Moreover, the American musical is fundamentally and inextricably linked to the contributions of African Americans either directly or indirectly As renowned black comedian Burt Williams once explained, when a strange, unassimilated element exists in a nation, it is almost, it almost immediately finds its way to the stage in comic types, usually chariactured The first symptoms of American individuality in the theater were reflections of the darkies presence upon this continent The one new stage form, which has been developed in this country, is of plantation origin I refer, of course, to minstrelsy The roots of the American musical reach back to the dime museums and circuses of the early 1800s and perhaps most spectacularly to that singular form of American entertainment known as minstrelsy Minstrelsy, black author James Weldon Johnson once explained, was on the whole a caricature of negro life, and it fixed the tradition of the negro as only an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, shuffling, banjo-playing, singing, dancing, sort of being Negro minstrelsy was first popularized around 1830

when T.D. Rice debuted his iconic character, Jim Crow He was, of course, not the first black-faced artist working though In 1843, the Virginia Minstrels inadvertently created the first organized minstrel show The individuals consisted of Billy Whitlock on banjo, Dan Emmett on violin, Frank Brower on bones castanets, and Dick Pelham on tambourine And Billy Whitlock, who took credit for organizing this quartet, explained, the origination of the Virginia Minstrels I claim as my own idea, and it cannot be blotted out One day, I asked old Dan Emmett, who was in New York at the time, to practice the fiddle and the banjo with me at his boarding house in Catherine Street So, we went down there, and when we had practiced two or three tunes, Frank Brower called in by accident He listened to our music, charmed to the soul I told him to join us with the bones, which he did Presently, Dick Pelham came in, also by accident, and looked amazed I asked him to procure a tambourine and join the party, and he went and got one The first regular engagement of this troupe was at the Bowery Amphitheater in February 1843, though they had played one benefit performance elsewhere, the month prior Lew Dockstader, a very famous minstrel in the later years of minstrelsy, once explained, not specifically about the Virginia Minstrels, but more about the form itself No form of entertainment met with such emphatic success It was purely a Native American growth, originated and fostered by Americans and depicting scenes of American life, southern life, of the cotton field, the plantation, slavery, and in further describing the impact on the American musical, George Wilson, another very famous minstrel, added, shades of the old-fashioned minstrel show with its never to be forgotten first part semicircle, melodious instrumental offering, rhythmic and graceful dancers, clever and witty [inaudible], will live forever in fiction, vaudeville, movies, radio, and presentation The minstrel show, and in turn the African American culture and heritage in which it was steeped, not only laid the foundation for the musical stage but also informed the American popular song As black song writer Rosamond Johnson noted, of the early original minstrel songs, one can easily trace and feel the influence of the same idioms and characteristics as found in the spirituals, plantation songs, and jubilees From its black face beginnings, the American musical has reflected the racial dynamics of a nation The New York Times, May 18, 1896 In the case Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court today sustained the constitutionality of the law of Louisiana, requiring the railroad of the state to provide separate cars for white and colored passengers The opinion states that by analogy to the laws of Congress, requiring the establishment of separate schools for children of the two races and other similar laws, the statute in question was within the competency of the Louisiana legislature In the history of the American musical, as in the history of the country itself, black musicals have often found themselves a segregated subset of the form, their story largely unsung Tonight, we will look at four fixtures in the history of the American musical and its corresponding subset of black musicals, one each in the 1800s, 1900s, 19-teens, and 1920s The first fixtures contributing to the early development of the American musical in the 1800s are the Hyers sisters >> Way down upon the Suwanee River, far, far away That’s where my heart is yearning ever, home where the old folks stay All up and down the whole cre —

>> That is a recording of Paul Robeson, I will add In 1876, the Hyers sisters, two popular performers, emerged as a pioneering force in the history of the American musical with their great moral musical drama, Out of Bondage, written by white author Joseph Bradford Out of Bondage was widely acclaimed for its musical element, which included an amalgamation of spirituals, plantation songs, and minstrel songs However, as the Detroit Free Press noted in its review, the dramatic element is more in the imagination than in reality But, the paper continued, considering the fact that it is only intended to be a medium for introducing the musical and special accomplishments of the company, the want of a dramatic element in the work detracts nothing from the remarkably entertaining qualities of the performance It is emphatically worth seeing Out of Bondage was an attempt at painting the African American story in a more mature light It exhibited what was described as “a life-like representation of slave life and character, abounding in fun and jollity The program, which you can see here in the center of the screen, consisted of four different acts, and I’ll read them, and you can read along if you’re able to see the screen there Act I was called Slavery, and it was described as the interior of Uncle Ed’s cabin before the war Act II, Freedom, During the war, and approach of the Union Army Act III, Up North five years after, educated and happy, free and prosperous And then in a departure, which was typical of the early American musical in this burgeoning form, act IV was not related to the drama per se, and it is described as Sam Lucas in his great character song concluding with a grand concert In its review, the Hartford Current noted, the play is a poor and weak thing, but it gives good opportunity for the display of negro characters and introduces easily the slave songs in which the troupe excels Though it was very clearly a product of this incubatory era and in the deeply primitive mold of this burgeoning American musical, out of bondage was a ground-breaking work headlined by two trailblazing African American artists The Hyers sisters would go on to present a number of other pieces, including some written by Pauline Hopkins, an early African American female author and one of the few throughout the American musical’s history Among Pauline Hopkins shows were Colored Aristocracy and The Underground Railroad, which actually went by multiple different titles Meanwhile, the Hyers sisters would further break ground in December 1879, launching their production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which featured an integrated cast Let’s keep in mind that this is actually only 14 years after the end of the Civil War And advertisement for the sisters later read This double troupe of white and colored artists have just played a week at the Euclid Avenue Opera House in Cleveland, Ohio, to the largest business ever known in that city There presented, for the first time in the history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that great national play without the aid of artificial coloring All negro characters were played by colored people By the 1890s, the sisters would be joined on the road by several competing black troupes, and in 1896, the same year as the Plessy v. Ferguson decree, one of the most famous and influential of these organizations was launched Built around renowned African American singer, Sissieretta Jones, the Black Patti Troubadours kick started their inaugural season in Fall 1896 The company was especially noteworthy because it effectively launched the father of the black musical theater and tonight’s second fixture, Bob Cole [ Music ]

I should preface this by noting that I’m a huge fan of Bob Cole, and he is one of my heroes I just, I find him incredibly inspiring He was born in Athens, Georgia, in 1868, and he was an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, librettist, dramatist, producer, and frankly a visionary As black author, Lester A. Walton recalled, Bob Cole was the most versatile and gifted colored artist on the stage, and his dominant thought was to elevate the race to which he belonged In addition to performing with the Troubadours Company, Cole directed their program, which consisted of a variety of different acts and a one-act musical, which Cole also co-authored with fellow performer, Billie Johnson The hour-long sketch was called, At Jolly Cooney Island This was in the midst of the coon song craze, which we’ll come to momentarily, and it became one of the highlights of The Troubadours’ act Cole himself was an audience favorite as well with the papers reporting, one of the brightest spots on the bill came in the person of Bob Cole, a witty young man who handles himself and his stories in commendable fashion At the conclusion of the Troubadours’ first season, frustrated with his wages, Cole requested a pay increase When the troupes two white managers refused the increase, Cole left the company and took his material for At Jolly Cooney Island with him The Troubadours managers had Cole arrested and charged with theft At this point, he actually fought the charges and won Thereafter, in summer 1897, Bob Cole and his partner at the time, Billy Johnson, expanded their little one-act musical, which was At Jolly Cooney Island, into what would become the first legitimate full-length musical comedy written, staged, produced, and performed entirely by black artists A Trip to Coontown is what it was called It opened September 27, 1897, in South Amboy, New Jersey Much of the first season was spent playing one-night engagements in second-class houses in remote cities around the country because those two white managers of Black Patti’s Troubadours had used their connections to blacklist Cole and his newly formed company, which included some members that defected from the Troubadours However, by the end of the first season word of mouth and great reviews led two powerful New York producers to finally definitely Cole’s blacklisting, and he booked the show into the Third Avenue Theater for a one-week engagement in April 1898 And you can see an advertisement on the screen there The banner at the top came a week after the first New York engagement of A Trip to Coontown, talking of its success In its review of the production, the New York Sun, in fact, remarked, A Trip to Coontown is one of the most artistic farce comedy shows that New York has seen in a long time The mere fact that this performance is given entirely by negro singers would make it interesting in itself, but the excellence of the performance raises it far above any such level Their likeness of foot, their mellow voices, and the grace and distinction with which they carry themselves places these artists high above the average white farce comedy level A Trip to Coontown is a great, big, whacking success Bob Cole’s groundbreaking phenomenon ultimately toured four full seasons between 1897 and 1901, played more than 400 engagements, including seven stops in New York City Moreover, the original black musical was incredibly well received everywhere it went The Memphis Press, in particular, offered a descriptive review of the piece noting, there is no black face in the entire show, no rough or grating horseplay, no ancient bewhiskered gags and jokes to swallow From one end to the other, it is clean and well carried out conception, full of music and laughter and calculated to please The story of two conmen who had to scheme to bill money

from a rich widower, A Trip to Coontown was refined, first-rate entertainment As the Boston Globe put it at the time, there was no attempt at giving a picturesque presentation of life in the sunny south, which of course was custom at the time No levy scenes and plantation scenes, cakewalks, buck dances Instead, a performance was given, which was high class Bob Cole’s libretto was especially fantastic and fine, its dialogue clean and crafty while still being very much of its time, keeping in mind this is turn of the century, so still very early in the life of the American musical To the element of time, the only questionable component of A Trip to Coontown was ultimately its title and its corresponding abundance of coon songs Coon songs, black author James Weldon Johnson explained, were concerned with jamborees of various sorts and play of razors with the gastronomical delights of chicken, pork chops, and watermelon, and with the experiences of red hot mammas and their never too faithful papas, these songs were, for the most part crude, raucous, bawdy, and often obscene The black newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman would further add, all a songwriter had to do was to get two verses and a chorus of anything bad they could say about the negro, in a humorous way, put the words to ragtime or a slow drag tune, and use the word coon as often as possible, their fortune was made In the 1890s, following the idiomatic evolution of spirituals, jubilees, and minstrel songs, coon songs and ragtime emerged, giving the new nation a distinct musical identity, however injurious the unintended effects of the popular coon song fad, together with its ragtime counterpart, the new vernacular opened doors for African American artists, Bob Cole being one of them Looking back years later, Bob Cole addressed the controversial title, noting, that day has passed with the softly flowing tide of revelations And by the time Coontown ended its highly successful run in Spring 1901, Bob Cole had already formed a new songwriting partnership with brothers Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson [ Music ] Does anyone recognize that song? That’s one of their most famous songs and certainly most lasting, Under the Bamboo Tree is the title Bob Cole and the Johnson brothers, who you see here, known commercially as Cole and Johnson — just as a sidenote this Johnson is distinctly different from the Billy Johnson of A Trip to Coontown Same last name, very different This trio went on to become the most successful black songwriters of the era, interpolating hit songs into more than a dozen Broadway shows and in 1904 becoming the first black songwriters to pen the complete score for a white musical on Broadway This was the short-lived Fay Templeton vehicle, In Newport That same year, they would also provide almost an entirely new score for another musical This was the London import Humpty Dumpty As the Washington Post reported at the time, in New York, there is scarcely a playhouse, big or little, which caters to the popular taste in which the songs of the Johnson brothers and Bob Cole are not heard every night As the Johnson brothers once explained of their arrangement, ours was and attempt to bring a higher degree of artistry to negro songs, especially with regard to text Bob Cole had a sincere desire to raise the writing standards of negro popular songs Cole himself separately added, we try to write in our songs the finer feelings of the colored race The negro has his sentimental side, just as the white man has

Most of the so-called coon songs are rough, coarse, often vulgar We try to retain the racial traits not only in the syncopated time of the music but in the lyrics as well and want the verses to sound as well when recited as when sung Written in the first decade of the 20th Century, Cole and Johnson’s songs are still largely emblematic of the time, particularly lyrically Though indeed, many steps in advance of the general output of the day, many of their lyrics, while being ultimately mature, poetic, lively, did not have the refinement, elevated linguistics, sophistication and resulting staying power of the general output of the jazz age and beyond A few of their lyrics, however, did, and those songs remain eminently palatable and wonderfully pleasurable today Personally, I’m going to share this with you in just a moment, I am mad for one of their early songs called the Countess of Alagazam It’s written in a very specific style, and it quite literally feels like a Noel Coward or a Cole Porter patter song, although it’s written more than a decade before either of those gentleman actually hit the scene So, we’re going to listen to actually the full song It’s quite wordy, and I’ve actually included the lyric sheet on the screen So once we get to the second chorus, you’ll be able to follow along with the lyrics I just want to warn you that this early cylinder recording jumps around a bit So, the choruses are not specifically in order as they’ve been laid out in the sheet music So, with that, this is Cole and Johnson, Countess of Alagazam [ Singing ] And so that is their Countess of Alagazam, of which I’m terribly fond In today’s sensibilities, we would probably want a key change and maybe we’d speed up or, you know, some additional musical arrangement, but this is in the style as it was originally recorded Beyond their songwriting ability, Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson displayed incredible talent on the vaudeville stage, playing across the United States and twice headlining the Palace Theater in London In 1906, the pair returned to the theatrical stage, headlining and coauthoring two all-black musicals Both the Shoe Fly Regiment and The Red Moon proved groundbreaking, incorporating genuine love stories, complex, melodic and harmonic elements, and more serious-minded subject matter Of particular note were Cole’s librettos, sharp and spectacular entries in this early era of the American musical Also of note, like Coontown, none of Cole’s shows or vaudeville acts utilized black face, which was customary at the time Unfortunately, in 1910, Cole collapsed, was hospitalized, and then institutionalized for what was reported as a mental breakdown due to overwork He was then released a year later, 1911, went to visit his mother in the Catskills and committed suicide He was at the time 43 years old In the Chicago Defender Sylvester Russell wrote at the time, Bob Cole was the nearest of any actor of his race to genius In consideration of the fact that he was a legitimate comedian who played acting parts without the aid of blacking his face, this alone places him highest in rank As a ragtime composer and lyric writer, he was the greatest of his day of any race or color, and I defy any man who disputes it Bob Cole was an extraordinary pioneer, and as I refer to him, the father of the black musical theater Beyond his endless quest to elevate the form, to him were connected a number of other great artists including Jesse A. Ship, who wrote librettos for Williams and Walker, James Reese Europe, renowned conducted and composer, and that seminal black figure in American entertainment, Bert Williams, who actually composed the title song for A Trip to Coontown This is a couple shots of Bert Williams

In 1910, Bert Williams began his now legendary association with the Ziegfeld Follies Prior to that, however, he was one of the driving forces of the black musical stage Beyond Bob Cole, who we have discussed, the early American musical and its subset of black musicals enjoyed the production of Bert Williams, who you see here, and his partner, George Walker, and separately, Ernest Hogan I want to just briefly address Ernest Hogan, because he was instrumental in the development of the musical stage, particularly in terms of its musical component In 1895, he penned La Pas Ma La, which became one of the drivers of the ragtime craze In 1896, he penned All Coons Look Alike to Me, which became one of the drivers of the coon song craze And in 1898, he brought both coon songs and ragtime to Broadway audiences, headlining a one-act black musical, which you may know, called Clorindy, as part of the summer vaudeville bill at the casino roof garden The show’s lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar, who we mentioned earlier, are overtly racial and painfully perishable in terms of their context in the time William Marion Cook’s music, however, is wonderfully vibrant, rich in rhythm and melody and deeply infectious This driving, expressive score, written by a premier African American composer of the American musical exhibited in its bones, in its blood, in its body the irrepressible vitality of an oppressed race To give you just a taste of the Clorindy score, and Will Marion Cook’s early ragtime sound, we’re going to share a video clip of one of my current projects, which is called 45 Minutes from Coontown It is a new documentary musical about the history of black musical theater, and it includes, in historical context, I want to note, a song from Clorindy called The Hottest Coon in Dixie [ Singing ] So, that’s just a chorus of The Hottest Coon in Dixie, and the rest of the score is really absolutely remarkable Dark Town Is Out Tonight, which you may have seen on the header there on the set, is a phenomenal song The score is really extraordinary One final note about Ernest Hogan and Will Marion Cook In 1905, Hogan and Cook created what some consider to have been the first jazz band performance, Ernest Hogan and his Memphis students, and with jazz, we get to our third fixtures of the evening, Henry Creamer and Turner Layton Like Bob Cole, these are two figures that I absolutely adore They are two of my favorite song writers period In the 19-teens, it was a dark period for black theatricals with Bob Cole, Ernst Hogan, and George Walker all having died and with Bert Williams having moved on to Ziegfeld’s Follies The music world, however, was being rocked by the idiomatic evolution of jazz Songwriters Henry Creamer and Turner Layton capitalized on the power and possibility of the new vernacular, paving the way for the reemergence of black authors in the world of the American musical [ Music ] Lyricist Henry Creamer had launched his theatrical career in 1907, co-authoring Earnest Hogan’s final musical, which was called The Oyster Man Composer Turner Layton meanwhile was a relative newcomer Between 1917 and 1922, the pair would categorically change the theatrical conversation, first with their long list of jazz standards including such certifiable American songbook classics as After You’ve Gone, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,

which you just heard, Strut Miss Lizzie, which is one of my favorite songs, and Dear Old Southland Second, with their similarly sizable selection of hit Broadway interpolations, including songs like Everybody Is Crazy About The Dog-Gone Blues and I’ll Sing You A Song, which were performed respectively by Bert Williams and Al Jolson Third, with their two vaudeville revues, A Creole Cocktail, described as “a syncopated musical beverage with a 100% kick,” and What Girls Have Done, which according to the Cincinnati Inquirer gave “vivid illustration to the ease and efficiency with which girls and women have taken over the industrial positions occupied heretofore by men, who have gone to war Just as a sidenote here, this is really at the height of the women’s suffrage movement, because the women’s right to vote will be ratified in 1920, this vaudeville act came out in 1919 Likewise, this was immediately after the end of World War I, and fourth, with regard to Creamer and Layton’s success and influence, with their three full-length stage musicals, Three Showers, Ebony Nights, and Strut Miss Lizzie The 1920 musical comedy, Three Showers, would make history as what appears to have been only the second white musical on Broadway with a complete score by black songwriters However, their work on that particular show was curiously generic and undistinguished Their score, however, for the 1921 black musical Ebony Nights, was very much in their characteristically vibrant vein In fact, the show never made it to New York, but a couple of the songs would be used in later efforts Of its out-of-town engagements, the local papers reported, Ebony Nights is a complete musical comedy offered by a splendid organization of colored actors, singers, and dancers Colored people know how to sing, and jazzy tunes and sentimental songs are mingled in a happy medley that is that is splendidly executed The production moves with a fast and lively pace from start to finish Ebony Nights, however, as mentioned, did not reach New York Their final full musical was the 1922 revue Strut, Miss Lizzie, whose title is actually borrowed from their 1921 song smash of the same name After two weeks at an out-of-the-way hole in the wall downtown, the sensational jazz-soaked revue moved to Broadway, playing first the Time Square Theater and then moving to the Earl Carroll Theater, the New York Telegram reported in its review, Strut, Miss Lizzie fairly sizzles with Ethiopian pep and ginger The negros mastery of impassioned rhythms reveals itself again and again in the swift moving dances and in the stirring songs Though it was decidedly well received, the production was plagued by lawsuits and financial troubles and ultimately led to the end of the Creamer and Layton partnership but the end of 1922 When they parted ways though, the black musical theater had already emerged or begun to emerge from the doldrums of the 19-teens Also, in its review of Strut, Miss Lizzie, the New York World noted, it was probably inevitable that such a promising rival to Shuffle Along, as that now in evidence at the Times Square Theater, should strike close to mid-Broadway in due course The 1921 musical, Shuffle Along, with which I’m sure many of you are familiar, was instrumental in launching a new wave of black musicals It had a book by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who you see pictured on the left-hand side of the screen, and like Henry Creamer, this pair was co-authors of Ernest Hogan’s final musical in 1907, The Oyster Man The score for Shuffle Along was written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and you can see that pair on the right-hand side of the screen here Its tremendous commercial success further fostered renewed interest in black entertainment, which led, in turn, to new opportunities for black authors [ Music ]

Throughout this age of jazz, prohibition, and the Harlem Renaissance, black musicals thrived Among the many African American authors active during this period were Duke Ellington, and you can see sheet music for his first stage musical, which was called Chocolate Kitties, it’s on the left-hand side of the screen This was a European revue that he wrote with Jo Trent Also, Fats Waller, whose Ain’t Misbehavin’ is actually from a musical, and Jimmy Johnson, the very famous stride pianist A little fun sidenote, if you can, hopefully you can read it, at the center of the screen there is a song called Taint Nothing Else But Jazz, and the songwriters listed are William Tracy, who is a white lyricist of whom I’m fond, Alex Belledna, and then music by Maceo Pinkard Maceo Pinkard was an African American composer and had a number of fairly successful hits, a not terribly well-known composer, however And Alex Belledna is the interesting factor here There are a few pieces of sheet music with Alex Belledna’s name, and actually, there is a show that Maceo Pinkard wrote, which I believe this was a show, which Brooks Sakins [phonetic], and I believe called the worst musical to hit Broadway, don’t quote me on that, but it was either that or a musical the year after, but in effect, it was terribly well received, it was called Pansy, scored by Maceo Pinkard, book by Alex Belledna And Alex Belledna is actually a penname for Edna Belle Alexander, who was a female African American songwriter, again, one of the few in the history of the musical theater Though they offered tremendous opportunities to black writers, the black musicals of the jazz age came primarily in the form of prescriptive and sometimes exploitative song and dance revues These racy, crude, often short-lived entertainments opened and closed on Broadway regularly throughout the 1920s and even into the ’30s, but it was the after-theater supper clubs that were arguably and perhaps paradoxically proving the most prescriptive and exploitative, and yet, the most artistic, fruitful, robust, exciting, interesting, stimulating, and consistent, and certainly, the most influential, at least in terms of the evolution of the American musical One of these establishments will be tonight’s fourth and final fixture Four of the best known nightclubs were undoubtedly the Cotton Club, which you can see in the top left, the, excuse me, Connie’s Inn, which is on the top right, and this is, I love this photo, this is actually a photo from the audience of one of the floor shows at Connie’s Inn So, this gives you a sense of what the environment was like Beyond Connie’s Inn, there was Small’s Paradise Bottom left, you see waiters from Small’s, and the Savoy Ballroom, which you can see here on the marque The most influential of late-night hotspots, however, at least as far as the American musical is concerned, was actually located outside of Harlem It was in the Shubick Brothers Wintergarden Theater Building on the corner of Broadway and 50th Street in the heart of the theater district This was the Plantation The Plantation opened in February 1922, well in advance of the other better-known Harlem establishments Throughout the ’20s, it would foster the careers of several icons, both on stage and off Duke Ellington is one of those icons His band played the Plantation before his now legendary residency at the Cotton Club Maceo Pinkard, who we also discussed, scored one of the Plantation’s floor shows, and then there were the superstars on their way to stardom, Florence Mills, who you can see all the way on the left-hand side, Josephine Baker, who is center, and Ethel Waters, who is on the right Now, both Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters starred in the club’s 1925 floor show called Tan Town Topics And this was literally on their rise to stardom Josephine Baker, if you’re familiar with her, she really launched her career or came into full force, shall we say, in Paris And she would first play the Plantation,

and then her first Paris revue was later that year Ethel Waters, likewise, would be on Broadway two years later in 1927 Florence Mills, meanwhile, opened the Plantation in 1922, establishing and polishing her star in the process And just a little fun tidbit, here, in fact, is her contract from the first floor show at the Plantation, and it is literally one paragraph I don’t know if you can see it on the screen, so I’ll quickly read it for you, literally in full, the contract reads, I hereby engage Miss Florence Mills, 229 West 139th Street, New York City, for an engagement of five weeks at the Plantation, Broadway and 50th, New York City Salary to be $200 per week with an option of five weeks same salary Seven performances a week, beginning February 16, 1922 Artist agrees to be ready to appear not earlier than 12:00 midnight and to render her services to the best of her ability In terms of her salary, 200 would be about $3000 in today’s money You will notice also on this particular contract that the club’s inaugural floorshow, and several thereafter actually, were produced by Lew Leslie, who was in fact white The Plantation also launched Leslie’s career He would go on to become the era’s leading producer of African American musicals on Broadway and beyond Leslie once explained, regarding the Plantation, I wanted a change in atmosphere and my presentation of colored entertainment to attract the best class of patronage, high brows as well as society folk I hit on the idea in the Plantation, which I had outfitted with strict attention to detail so that when society people and others came in, they would actually feel they were entering into a plantation scene This, I figured, would put them in the right mood for colored entertainment, to find a negro in his native field However, unintentionally racist or regressive, the Plantation atmospheric agenda may have been, its floorshow was a pioneering feat of theatricality and a triumphant trend center With the club’s inaugural floorshow proving so successful that it actually moved to Broadway that summer as the Plantation revue In its review of the Broadway iteration of the Plantation’s floor show, the New York Times noted, they’ve taken the negro musical from the Plantation restaurant, added a string of vaudeville numbers, and put it all at the 48th Street Theater as the Plantation revue It is a spontaneous outburst of song, dance, color, and buoyant spirits When Will Votery’s [phonetic] Plantation orchestra plays, you want to push back the chairs and begin to dance Just a quick note about Will Votery He’s often overlooked but really was a pioneering African American arranger and to a lesser extent composer and became known really as Florenz Ziegfeld’s secret musical weapon To the Plantation though, Lew Leslie’s Plantation floorshows would lead directly to the legendary Blackbirds series, which was perhaps the hallmark of the era Leslie’s first edition of Blackbirds premiered in 1926 with Florence Mills as its star Several editions followed, and in fact, most of the pictures you see here are from the edition we’re about to speak of, and the top right was actually from the 1930 edition, which was scored by Andy Razaf and Eubie Blake None of the editions, however, were more successful or Earth shattering than the second edition in 1928, staring Adelaide Hall and Bill Bojangles Robinson, both of whom you can see here, Blackbirds of 1928 was a singular sensation, playing more than a year and proving really the apex of the era Its score was especially fruitful, spawning such American songbook standards as I Must Have that Man, Diga Diga Doo, which is a personal favorite of mine, Doing the New Low Down, and a little known song that you probably have heard of called I Can’t Give You Anything But Love Baby, which was actually written for another show and put into Blackbirds, we should say All of these songs were written by the team of Dorothy Fields

and Jimmy McHugh, two white authors, who had themselves gotten their start in the world of black nightclub revues, albeit in their case at the Cotton Club, not the Plantation, as Leslie and Florence Mills have With a score by two white authors, Blackbirds of 1928 was also telling of a forthcoming trend By the mid-30s, Harlem had become old hat The Great Depression had ravaged the country The American musical had entered its so-called golden age, and the parade of black song and dance revues on Broadway disappeared The cumulative effects resulted in black authors disappearing as well The few new American musicals to reach Broadway with stories of African American life, [inaudible] Bess, St. Louis Woman, [inaudible] in the Sky among them, would be written by white authors And while the intrepid African American individuals may have disappeared, their collective impact, together with the collective impact of their similarly forgotten predecessors will forever be felt on the American musical stage The contributions of these black artists remain immeasurable In addition to shaping the fundamental foundation of the American musical, they paved the way for future generations And with that, I will close tonight with a look at some of the many black authors who wrote for the American musical stage over the course of the 20th Century Thank you [ Music ] Thank you so much for coming Thank you [ Applause ] I think if there are any questions, we do have time for questions >> I’m curious — I’m sorry? Oh, sorry I’m curious about the Catskills where Bob Cole went to unfortunately die >> Ben West: Right >> In our time, you know, Peg Lake Bates was probably one of the most African American — >> Ben West: The tap dancer Yeah >> Yeah >> [Inaudible] in New York where I’m from >> Ben West: Oh really? Oh, that’s funny I have to go back to my notes, but he was in a, one of these black musicals that I was looking at over the past week, and I can’t remember if it was Blackbirds or, actually, no, no, no, no I think this is correct There was a show that attempted to revive vaudeville called Blackouts that played in Los Angeles — I don’t think there was any relation to race, but it was called Blackouts, but it played in Los Angeles for several years and then moved to New York, and I think did not do well, and he took over And I can’t remember who played out in Los Angeles with it But anyway, I’m sorry, I’ve interrupted your — >> [Inaudible] in my little town, he would come and he would perform at our school, and the fact that he had been on television, and he was the biggest star ever — >> Ben West: Oh, that’s funny >> For our whole community >> Ben West: Oh that’s funny I mean he is, I don’t know how well known he is outside the tap world, but exceptionally famous tap dancer, who I was reading about a couple of years ago when this new tap history book came out That’s so interesting I love that Yeah, yeah >> Do you know if that theater piece, The Oysterman, was that about the oystermen of Staten Island or the Chesapeake Bay possibly? >> Ben West: No, it was essentially a followup to Ernest Hogan’s prior musical called Rufus Rastus, and it took place in Baltimore >> Baltimore, okay >> Ben West: So, and I don’t remember the exact narrative or the exact thread of what happened, but essentially, it was Baltimore based and reviving Ernest Hogan’s character >> You’ve alluded to something that I’m curious

about in a number of points in your talk, and that is, who went to these shows? Who controlled the theaters? Who was making the money on the shows? Who was getting the rights to the shows? Those kinds of things >> Ben West: It’s — great question It was unique to each project So, there were specific black theaters, like the Pekin Theater in Chicago was an all-black theater company However, in New York, on Broadway, it was largely white-owned, but you had, for example, A Trip to Coontown, which was produced by Cole and Billy Johnson, shall we say, whereas Ernest Hogan’s shows that we mentioned, were to my knowledge produced or at least presented by white producers In the case of Henry Creamer and Turner Layton, for example, their show, Strut, Miss Lizzie, this 1922, was produced by them However, they ultimately were not the only ones who appeared above the title, because this is part of, I guess, what led to its being a disaster Henry Creamer formed this company that he thought he could finance through songs that they had placed in other shows that season But those songs didn’t do particularly well, so he didn’t have the full capital to be able to produce their own show, so then, he started borrowing money and made a deal with Minske [phonetic] He made a deal with, I believe it’s Arthur Lyons, made a deal with then Earl Carroll, and so a bunch of these people got into the pot So, it started as Henry Creamer, but then monetarily came from other white individuals And I think that money was just a large factor for, I think, a lot of black musicals in the 1920s and early ’30s, and I think to an extent why they did not succeed, at least on the production end Another Henry Creamer example, there’s a show that he was called in to rescue called Deep Harlem, which hit Broadway literally a week in January 1929 He was not involved with it initially, but he was called in to sort of save it as it were, which was a futile task at that point Point being, it was initially a black-produced effort, and they had no money So, they, as I understand it, they didn’t even have enough money or enough time to get the materials ready for a proper dress rehearsal before the opening curtain in New York Just the nature of access and opportunity to funds for the black musical theater, I think, was particularly slim, particularly for black-produced projects, which unfortunately, I think, contributed to their beginning undercooked and/or sort of having the appearance of being thrown together, in a sense, which is how deep Harlem was received I will just kind of side note add that that was a more adventurous black musical Most of the shows in the ’20s were prescriptive song and dance shows like Blackbirds or the Miller and Lyle, Miller and Lyle’s pieces had a little bit more of a plot to it, but they were, it was still more of the bawdy musical revue style Deep Harlem attempted to trace African American history from Africa to Harlem And so, it was more ambitious in its aims, but then, you know, there was the poor material factor There was the money factor of not having, you know, time and resources, and so it just died In terms of audiences, it was both There were many, unfortunately I didn’t, it’s not up here, but there’s a wonderful clipping that I found of A Trip to Coontown when it was playing, oh shoot, I can’t remember where it was playing I believe it was on their southern, when they did the southern loop, and it’s an ad about balcony seats, so much for colored people, orchestra seats, so much for white audiences So, in fact, they did play to both races or all races in terms of audience, or they were accessible to all audiences And, in fact, there have been reports that particularly the Cole and Johnson, Cole and Rosamond Johnson, Shoefly Regiment in 1906, Red Moon in 1908, being more geared toward the commercial white audience, and certainly the success of Williams and Walker was very much due, or I shouldn’t say very much,

their overwhelming success was due in large part to their accessing and their engagement with white audiences >> Oh she asked a question >> Sorry. You mentioned a review of a Cole and Johnson production where the review pointed out that there was not black face >> Ben West: Right, yes >> And so that was about 1905, 1906 >> Ben West: That was, I think the revue that I quoted would have been with A Trip to Coontown >> Okay >> Ben West: So, that would be 1897 through 1901 >> Okay. And then later we see like in the 1920s or ’30s, it looks like it went back to black face Was there a period after Cole and Johnson that black face was not being used before it came back into the theater, and what accounts for that? >> Ben West: Well, this is something that really fascinates me and is what I think gets missed sometimes in the story of Shuffle Along Shuffle Along, sometimes people, or sometimes there’s a misconception that Shuffle Along is the first black musical on Broadway This is not true, as we referenced earlier, both with Williams and Walker and also the Cole and Johnson, Ernest Hogan pieces What I think, or one of the things that I think is remarkable about Bob Cole is that he dispensed with the use of black face Ernst Hogan did use black face for his projects Williams and Walker used black face for their projects Bob Cole did not, from the beginning A trip to Coontown had no black face In fact, there were some reports that indicate he used white face or some version of white makeup for his tramp character Nonetheless, there is no black face used in any Cole and Johnson production, while other folks are using black face at the time So, he is, I guess, I look at it, and how he described it, was trying to elevate and advance the black musical theater And so, I think the interesting thing that gets overlooked in Shuffle Along is, as you pointed out, while black face is never really lost, Shuffle Along doesn’t follow along in the Bob Cole tradition of pioneering natural hue and sort of dispensing with black face It actually embraces the black face, because it used black face in the show, as did Miller and Lyles, I believe, for their other shows, throughout, in the ’20s So, to an extent, to the extent that Bob Cole didn’t use black face, and there were others who sporadically did not use it, I don’t think, for example, it was used without Alex Rogers and Henry Creamer They had a brief company known as The Negro Players I have not found evidence that it was used; however, I have not seen photographs, so I can’t be certain I don’t believe they did, but again, that was part of this sort of doldrums of the teens where black musicals had no oxygen So, I don’t know that it ever completely went away, but certainly the Bob Cole trend didn’t continue when Shuffle Along came back I think then, you know, you see photos of Blackbirds, and there, Florenz Mills, who did not use it, so there are other instances where it starts to disappear But it was not fully gone, you know, by the ’20s >> You mentioned a southern tour, and I’m wondering how many of these shows toured the deep south Did the producers change their pitch in the south or tailor the shows they brought to the south to southern audiences and did the producers ever encounter violence in the south? I mean this was a time of widespread lynching >> Ben West: Right, right To work backwards, to my knowledge, at least I have not encountered any instances of violence, specifically with regard to theater productions Separately, I will note that the artists did not escape the violence that was prevalent in the culture at large For example, I think it was the race riot of 1900, 1901, it was turn of the century, that inadvertently caught up with Ernest Hogan and George Walker in which they were either attacked or chased I can’t remember which gentleman was attacked and which was chased Nonetheless, it didn’t, they were not immune from these racial trends One particular thing with regard to touring that was not just the south, actually There was an article from Pennsylvania specifically with A Trip to Coontown, and I also found evidence of this prior to that with Black Patti’s Troubadours,

which was a touring troupe, that they couldn’t find housing So, the hotels in various cities would not accommodate these black artists So, in the case of Coontown specifically, the black residents took them in So, that was certainly something that happened frequently >> Sammie Davis was [inaudible] >> Ben West: I don’t, what does the story go? >> That Frank Sinatra said that he would not play — >> Ben West: Yes, yes, yes [ Inaudible Comments ] >> That was the ’50s >> Yeah, I know, but, and it still went on into the ’50s [inaudible] >> It never went away completely >> Ben West: Completely And then the beginning of the question was touring the south >> Especially the deep south >> Ben West: Yes >> Kazem Abdullah: Can you wait actually to get a mic to speak just because then everyone can hear >> Ben West: Oh, his question — >> Kazem Abdullah: That’s for people that are interject — >> Ben West: Oh, sure, sure >> Kazem Abdullah: Yeah, if you have a mic, please speak into the microphone so everyone can hear >> Ben West: His question was did the show, did the black musicals tour into the south, and what was the nature of that environment Coontown specifically, because I’ve taken an immense dive into Coontown, did in fact tour the south in its final season, and it was actually as well received in the south as it was at all of the rest of its locations, and there are I’m forgetting the specific quote, but it was sort of a, it began by saying, sort of, this is the first time that anything as pretentious as this has been here by colored people And then it goes on to say the performance was refined and splendidly carried out So, it was well received, and I think it was certainly given the nature of the time, a bold choice to go to the south in their final season As to was it marketed differently, I don’t know the answer to that I don’t know the answer My guess is no, but I don’t know the answer I can say in terms of evidence of marketing shows differently for different regions or demographics, the sheet music industry and [inaudible] at the time was booming, and so sheet music for the shows was marketed differently for different communities So, I think we only have one copy of the sheet music for Strut, Miss Lizzie up here, which I know is the ’20s, but this sort of era generally, it occurred earlier Sheet music, Strut, Miss Lizzie, specifically, has three different sheet music covers that I found One, with a young black woman with a sort of black bullets, and another one who is the same figure but white, and then a completely different cover that is gold and black and very regal with a white woman walking her little dog So, it’s the sheet music industry definitely catered to the different markets and adapted to the racial dynamics of the time >> Hi. I have two quick questions The first question is, why did African Americans at this time wear black face, and the second question is, what sparked your interest in this particular topic? Was it part of a doctoral dissertation or? >> Ben West: Oh, sure, sure Okay. Why, the why wear black face Um — Without having direct, having read direct interviews with the individuals, understanding the nature of the projects, I think there were a couple of reasons I think, one, in terms of access to the stage and access to opportunity, and that being the predominant trend, in the case of Williams and Walker and I think later Miller and Lyles, there’s evidence of a subversive element where they are utilizing custom and trying to turn it on its head or make an actual social statement about it I don’t know how effective it was or wasn’t But I think certainly I would posit as it relates to early use of black face and much like coon songs, it was the predominant fad, and it was an access to opportunity, and it was what audiences were after And so, that is how it was utilized I would want to dig into a more fulsome answer,

but that’s my initial perception of it I think also it, I think, I’m now recalling, there’s a quote about, that James Weldon Johnson talks about, the early black minstrel troupes, and acknowledging the negative impacts that it had, it also provided the only means of training for these black artists at the time, and he talks about not being able to have gotten this type of stage training or experience anywhere else So, my inclination is that that factors into it, but again, I would want to do a deeper dive into that specific question As to the second element of it, I have always loved musical theater, and I’ve always been interested in its history, its past And I used to work specifically on or mind specific projects that were lesser known, not specifically of the African American vernacular, just lesser known musicals Twenty fourteen was really a turning point for me after what I call my incubatory years, and so, I at that point figured out what I specifically wanted to do, how I wanted to work, and what my focus really was And so, that’s when I started taking a deeper dive into the actual evolution of the form, going back to the 1800s and how this particular element influenced that, likewise this influencing that And that process led to this documentary musical series that I’ve been working on for the last couple years as well as a book that I’ve started working on about the evolution of the form And in terms of a specific focus on female and separately African American artists, it came out of a need, passion, desire to tell their story, because they’re often overlooked in the central story of the American musical, and yet, they’re so crucial and vital to its evolution On the African American side specifically, I’m part black myself, so that was of particular personal interest just given my own particular heritage But that’s, I guess, how I came about it >> Kazem Abdullah: We have time for one more quick question >> Just had a couple of, just a really short one One is, you left out, I don’t know if it’s purposely or not, but Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha Is that because it aspires to the operatic genre? >> Ben West: No, no I didn’t, I just didn’t include it, and it was not, it was — I mean in its original form, it was not produced >> Right >> Ben West: So, it wasn’t actually produced until the ’70s when it was adapted >> Right >> Ben West: So, yeah, no, I just did not — >> And then the second one was, have you done any — >> Ben West: Not punitive towards Scott Joplin >> I was blessed to be able to be a part of the production of that here in Washington a couple years ago >> Ben West: Oh really? >> Yeah, it was wonderful The other question is, do you have any information on Eubie Blake’s 1940 revue, Tan Manhattan? >> Ben West: I find that interesting I will say, I’m not the, I don’t have a great fondness for Eubie Blake in the way that I do for Henry Creamer and Turner Layton Now you’ve just gotten me on another topic But Henry Creamer actually wrote with Eubie Blake, the stuff was not published or produced, in the late ’20s before Henry Creamer died But Tan Manhattan fascinates me because some of the score is quite good This is 1940 It’s Andy Razaf, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and I think, as I say, some of the score is quite good What I find most interesting about that particular show is, well, a number of things It billed itself, or the creators themselves, billed it as the next Shuffle Along So, this is 20 years after Shuffle Along happened Shuffle Along was a tremendous success But as I point out, along with sort of the black face aspect, Shuffle Along was also very much of its time It does not last, it does not hold up Some of the score does, but you just, it doesn’t work You know, they attempted to revive it twice, and it did not work Or I should say not straight revive, a revisal, an adapted return in the ’30s and then I believe in 1952 And it just, it doesn’t work So, nonetheless they kept, they being the creators,

kept pointing to Shuffle Along as, you know, we’re going to, it’s going to hit again, we’re going to hit again So, Tan Manhattan, I think, is particularly interesting because we’ve, it comes at a time when black musicals have disappeared So, this is 1940 The ’30s, they start to disappear, and so this is going to be this big beacon of life that is going to be, I’m paraphrasing, but they say something about this is the greatest sensation since Shuffle Along 20 years ago And it just dies [ Inaudible Comment ] I think it was, positively and negatively There were, it was a mix is what I have found I don’t have it at my fingertips unfortunately, but I read something similarly And it was both positive and negative I think there were positive elements, but overall, it just didn’t have the, it didn’t make the impact enough to sustain or to move it to “Broadway.” But I just find its trajectory and the fact that they keep harkening back to Shuffle Along so interesting and never succeeding [ Inaudible Comment ] Oh, the Blake favorite? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [ Inaudible Comment ] And then it was, it was like, yeah, once it, I can’t remember where it debuted, but I believe it played Washington I don’t know if this was the first place, but it played here for sure at some point, and then I think went to the Lafayette, which was in Harlem, this was the Harlem Theater, I believe that’s correct It went to the Lafayette It played somewhere in New York that was not Broadway And then there was a tab version that went out, and then it got changed to the title, I think and went back to the Lafayette as Up Harlem Way or something, so — [ Inaudible Comment ] It’s, it’s a — [ Inaudible Comment ] Which perhaps speaks to why it was not successful I’m being flagged, I’m being flagged [laughter] Sorry >> Kazem Abdullah: So, thank you so much for the wonderful lecture We are much grateful There’s materials to see on the side of the stage, and if people still have questions, we can stay for probably another 20 minutes, but there’s collection materials that people can view And thank you so much for the wonderful lecture It was very informative >> Ben West: Thank you Thank you for coming Thank you [ Applause ]