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African-American/Black Musical Theater
Transcript of African-American/Black Musical Theater
From MUSICAL THEATRE: A HISTORY by John Kendrick: "Jazz was so unprecedented that it still defies definition. It combined the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the emotional wail of country blues, adding an element of improvisation. Jazz could be written on the page, but it was mostly defined by the unique touches singers and musicians brought to each performance. Born in the bordellos of New Orleans and nurtured in such cities as Chicago, Memphis, and Kansas City, jazz was an African-American invention. And like many other such cultural inventions, it would over time be co-opted by whites. Listeners didn't care what color the musicians were so long as the jazz was hot. When author F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the 1920s "The Jazz Age," he was speaking for a discontented generation that found in this music an expression of their passion, their sorrows, their anger, and their sheer energy. [...] By the end of the decade, the rise of jazz embodied the new American domination of popular culture worldwide. (169)
Musicals influenced by jazz include: All the Black Musicals of the 1920s and all of the George and Ira Gershwin musicals, most notably: PORGY AND BESS.
African-American/Black Musical Theater
Bob Cole and the Johnson Brothers
John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) a classically trained piano player and his brother James Weldon Johnson had a dream of making an original operetta on Broadway. They teamed up with Bob Cole, a man who had always dreamed of success in the theater. Their songs ended the "coon songs" and gave legitimacy to African-American musical writers.
George Walker and Bert Williams
-Considered the first famous African-American performing duo.
-Brought the "Back-to-Africa Musicals" with IN DAHOMEY (1903), which was also the first all-black show to play a major Broadway theater.
-BANDANNA LAND (1908), was the most highly praised of their shows, unfortunately it was their last because George Walker died during the show.
-Bert Williams went on to a solo career, and was the first African-American to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies.
-Written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake,featuring an all-black cast, and was the first success of Black Broadway after the exile of black performers from 1910-1917.
-Opened in 1921 and played for 504 performances; it legitimized the black musical.
-Launched the careers of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles (a vaudeville team who helped write the libretto).
-Also catapulted the careers of Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and Adelaide Hall.
-Written by James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack.
-Starred the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles.
-Launched the dance craze of "The Charleston".
The First Black Musicals
-From BLACK MUSICAL THEATRE: FROM COONTOWN TO DREAMGIRLS, by Allen Woll: Minstrel shows with white performers in black face started in 1832, where Broadway audiences saw "...shuffling, irresponsible, wide-grinning, loud-laughing Negroes" in a musical rendition of "darky life on the Old Plantation."
-As early as 1855, Minstrel Shows began featuring black performers.
-In 1890, a black performer, Ernest ("The Unbleached American") Hogan composed "All Coons Look Alike To Me," a love song for a woman who has to choose between two men, becomes a huge hit.
-In 1898, the first black composers, Will Marion Cook and Bob Cole have their musicals CLORINDY: THE ORIGIN OF THE CAKEWALK and A TRIP TO COONTOWN produced on Broadway.
Taking its name from the syncopated rhythms or the "ragged" rhythms, ragtime began as dance music in the red light districts of the African-American districts of St. Louis and New Orleans. The time signature was based after John Phillip Sousa's march.
Ragtime had its heyday from 1895-1918, when jazz began to supersede its predecessor in popularity.
Musicals influenced by ragtime are: Will Marion Cook's CLORINDY, THE ORIGIN OF THE CAKEWALK, any musical by Irving Berlin (hailed as "The King of Ragtime," a title that annoyed African-Americans), and 1998's RAGTIME, the musical
Rhythm and Blues is a genre of African-American music that became popular in the 1940s. The term was coined by record companies were trying to market to more urban African Americans with "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat." Nowadays, R&B is mostly associated with the Blues, which originated in African-American communities in the "Deep South." The Blues were spirituals, work songs, field hollars and chants set to a twelve-bar chord progression. They were songs that were to be the antidote for "the blues" or depression.
Musicals influenced by R&B include: THE WIZ, RAISIN, DREAMGIRLS, and PURLIE.
R&B and The Blues
Be-Bop, Soul Music and Motown
A style of jazz characterized by a fast tempo, virtuosity, and improvisation. This style was developed in the early 1940s and was used in the slang of jazz musicians during WWII. This type of jazz became synonymous with modern jazz and erupted in the 1960s.
Soul Music: A musical genre that combined the elements of African-American gospel, R&B, and Jazz.
Motown: A record company that popularized Be-Bop and Soul Music.
Musicals influenced by BeBop/Soul are: THE WIZ, DREAMGIRLS, RAISIN, and PURLIE.
A genre of music that originated in the the 1940s and 50s. It is a combination of African-American genres of the blues, jump blues, jazz, and gospel music, combined with Western swing and country music. It is essentially a blues chord progression with a strong backbeat. The term came from the "rocking and rolling" of the spiritual fervor of black churches. In the 1940s and 50s, parents who did not like the term, gave it a sexual connotation.
Musicals influenced by rock 'n' roll: HAIR, GREASE, RENT, SPRING AWAKENING, NEXT TO NORMAL, and THE WHO'S TOMMY.
Rock 'n' Roll
The Hot Mikado
-A 1939 musical theater adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's MIKADO with an African-American cast.
-Considered the first African-American opera. It deals with the Gullah community on "Catfish Row" in Charleston, SC. Written by George and Ira Gershwin from the book and play by DuBose Heyward. Initially, this show was not popular, but a revival on Broadway, eventually secured its place in history.
Porgy and Bess
-1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II dealing from a book by the same title by Edna Ferber, that deals with the lives of the performers, stagehands and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat from 1887-1927. Often considered the first modern musical, it deals with racial prejudice, miscegenation, and enduring love.
-Musical by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer based off a book by Arna Bontemps that was turned into a play by poet Countee Cullens. It tells the story of Little Augie, a successful jockey and his love for Della, a woman who is with a man who abuses her. Little Augie starts to lose races and everyone tells him it's because Della is bad luck. She leaves him, and he finds out she left, and decides that if he wins his next race, the curse is mumbo-jumbo, and, so, he does, and he wins back Della.
St. Louis Woman
-Considered the first rock musical. Book and lyrics by James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. It tells the story of the counterculture hippie movement in New York City during the Vietnam War. It used a racially integrated cast.
-A retelling of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in the African-American context with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown.
-A musical that is based on the successes and failures of R&B soul singers. Music by Henry Krieger and book by Tom Eyen.
-A musical retelling of THE ADVENTURE OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman.
Bring in da' Noise, Bring in 'da Funk
-A show conceived and told by George C. Wolfe, featuring music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Anne Duquesnay; lyrics by Reg E. Gaines, George C. Wolfe, and Anne Duquesnay.
-This musical tells the story of three families in the early 20th Century from different backgrounds : African-Americans, Upper-class surburbanites, and Eastern European Jews. Also, many historical figures are characters in the musical like Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. Book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty.
Once on this Island
-This musical tells the story of a peasant girl on a tropical island who brings people of different social classes together through the power of love. There is also some allusions to ROMEO AND JULIET. Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty.
-This musical tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, who wants to desperately be on The Corny Collins Show, a Baltimore American Bandstand-type TV show. She gets her wish when she begins to appropriate the moves of her African-American friends. She then decides that she wants to integrate the show.
The Color Purple
-Based on the famous novel by Alice Walker, this musical tells the story of Celie, who has been pregnant twice by the age of 14. Her father gets rid of the children then marries her off to a local farmer (Mister), who needs someone to watch his own children. Nettie attempts to live with them, but after Mister tries to take advantage of her, Nettie fights back, and Mister separates Celie from her beloved sister Nettie. Many trials and tribulations later result in the reunion of the sisters and Celie's two adult children. Book by Marsha Norman, Music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones.
-Loosely based on the Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music. Music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics). Orchestrations by Daryl Waters.
Tony Award African-AmericanFirsts
-Juanita Hill in SOUTH PACIFIC (1950) for best featured actress in a musical.
-Diahann Carroll in NO STRINGS (1962) won for best performance in a musical.
-Cleavon Little in PURLIE (1965) won for best performance in a musical.
-Pearl Bailey for special Tony Award in 1968.
-Ben Vereen in PIPPIN (1972) for best featured actor in a musical.
-George Faison for best choreography in THE WIZ (1975).
-Geoffrey Holder for best direction in THE WIZ (1975).
-Whoopi Goldberg, as producer, for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE.
-George C. Wolfe for Best Theatrical Event: ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY (2002).
-In 2008, Stew won for best book: PASSING STRANGE.
-In 2010, Daryl Waters for best orchestrations: MEMPHIS.
Most Recent Critically Acclaimed Musicals
PASSING STRANGE, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, and HAMILTON.