BLACK HISTORY MONTH ON BROADWAY
By Peter Filichia
Time does fly, does it not? Already more than one twelfth of the “new” year in gone, and now we’re already in Black History Month.
I trust that on Sunday, February 1, you started celebrating by playing Street Scene, for on this date in 1902, its librettist, Langston Hughes was born.
And on February 2 – the date that Ragtime finished its two-disc recording session in 1998 – you played all the songs that captured Coalhouse Walker and Sarah’s joy and pain.
But if you’re reading this on February 3 – or after — and need a few hints on how to celebrate the remaining days of Black History Month, may I make a few suggestions?
February 3: Black History Month wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging Show Boat, the first great American musical to deal with African-American issues. Highbrow theatregoers who’d never given much thought to blacks came out of the theater feeling differently – especially after having heard “Ol’ Man River.”
But Show Boat was especially remarkable in the way it used “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Julie, the boat’s star entertainer, sings it to Magnolia to indicate how love can make a person powerless. But Queenie, the ship’s black cook, mentions that she’s only heard “colored folk sing dat song.” It’s the first clue that the ostensibly white Julie has some black blood. Never had the American musical theater used a song so subtly to reveal such an important plot point.
February 4: In 1999, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is revived on Broadway. While cartoonist Charles Schulz and adapter Clark Gesner conceived the “Peanuts” crew as all white, now an African-American, Stanley Wayne Mathis, was judged to be the best of all who auditioned for Schroeder and thus got the part. Not only that, Andrew Lippa wrote a new song for him. So although “Beethoven’s Birthday” was in December, listen to Mathis celebrating old Ludwig.
February 5: The Hilton Twins are born together – literally — in 1908. Their musical Side Show was an important building block in the career of Norm Lewis, who recently wrapped up a run as Braodway’s first African-American Phantom of the Opera. Listen to him swing his advice to the Hiltons: “The Devil You Know.”
February 6: In 1988, Michael Jordan makes his first signature slam dunk from the free throw line, which inspired Air Jordan and the Jumpman logo. As a result, play “Michael Jordan’s Ball” from The Full Monty.
February 7: Eubie Blake, born on this day in 1887, wrote the music for Shuffle Along in 1921. Alas, original cast albums weren’t made in America in those days, so you’ll have to settle for the studio cast album made a quarter-century later to hear four of its songs (including “I’m Just Wild about Harry”).
February 8: In 1978, a most modest revue opens at the woebegone space then occupied by the fledgling Manhattan Theatre Club. No one knew then that in only seventy-nine days, the show would be on Broadway and that a mere thirty-seven days after that, it would be the first revue to win the Best Musical Tony: Ain’t Misbehavin’: The New Fats Waller Musical Show.
February 9: The weekend’s over and it’s time to return to working – but once you get home, return to Working, the 1978 musical that offers three fine songs by Micki Grant, one of the first African-American women to write for Broadway. There’s “Lovin’ Al,” about a parking attendant who loves his job; “Cleanin’ Women,” about a hard worker who doesn’t and “If I Coulda Been,” whose next lines “What I coulda been, I coulda been something.” Micki Grant need not wonder if she coulda-woulda-shoulda.
February 10: In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play A Raisin in the Sun has its world premiere in Chicago – and if it didn’t, we certainly wouldn’t have had Raisin, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1973-74. Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan’s acclaimed score holds up quite well.
February 11: While we’re on the subject of A Raisin in the Sun, note that that title became a line in “Black Boys” from Hair. Never noticed? Listen closely.
February 12: And while we’re on the subject of Hair, you could play “Abie Baby” today in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It may not be the ultimate tribute we can give our sixteenth president, but ‘twill serve.
February 13: Saratoga closes in 1960, but the album lives on. Listen to Carol Brice, one of the great African-American contraltos, sing
“Goose Never Be a Peacock.” The song starts with “Take a whole heap o’ learnin’ for a person to know. Dis ol’ world keep a-turnin’ but it turn mighty slow.” Happily, it’s turned faster in the 135 years since Saratoga took place.
February 14: Valentine’s Day is the busiest day of the year for marriages in Las Vegas. So play “I Could Get Married Today,” which black vaudeville star Maurice Ellis sang to perfection in one of his last roles in 1951’s Seventeen.
February 15: In honor of the day in 1964 when “Hello, Dolly!” — sung by a black man (Louis Armstrong) — becomes the Number One Record in the country, play the Pearl Bailey recording of Hello, Dolly! Believe me, if Bailey hadn’t come into the show almost four years into the run, it would have never been able to eventually eclipse My Fair Lady as the longest-running Broadway musical.
February 16: Otis Blackwell is born in 1931. He’d later co-write two very big hits for Elvis Presley, which you can hear on the 2005 original cast album of All Shook Up: the title song and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
February 17: It’s The Official “Random Acts of Kindness” Day, so play “Kindness” from Inner City. While you’re at it, get to know the entire stunning rock score that Eve Merriam and Helen Miller wrote for this much-too-unknown 1971 musical that centered on urban life.
February 18: In 1688, this country saw its first official protest against slavery. Hence, play “Freedom,” the joyous cakewalk from Shenandoah. Nice, too, that during the Civil War era, a white woman thinks nothing of joining a young black man in song.
February 19: Purlie begins previews with no fanfare: unknown songwriters, unknown performers and little advance sale. But in less than a month, all three major New York theater critics will proclaim “Purlie is victorious!” – a reference to the character’s last name and the title of the play from which the musical sprang. Literally two months after that first preview, both Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, those previously unknown performers, win Tony Awards.
February 20: How fitting that “The Official World Day of Social Justice” should come during Black History Month. Alas, this is only the sixth anniversary of the event; although the United Nations ratified it in 2007, it didn’t begin until 2009. That was eighty years too late for Thomas “Fats” Waller, Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf, who in 1929 wrote about the travails of being “Black and Blue.”
February 21: In 1967, Hallelujah, Baby! starts rehearsals, and while it will be the only Tony-winning Best Musical to have closed when it receives the award, it does have a magnificent score by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It told of 20th century Black History, from few rights to civil rights. Thus, it utilized the various styles of black music heard throughout the century. Leslie Uggams and Lillian Hayman were also the first actresses to win Tonys for playing mother and daughter. The former’s “My Own Morning” and the latter’s “I Don’t Know Where She Got It” certainly helped.
February 22: It’s Washington’s Birthday, so while you’re washing up, play “The Washingtons Are Comin’ In,” which got Tiger Haynes (later The Tinman in The Wiz) great recognition in New Faces of ‘56. Afterward when you put on your Sunday clothes, put on “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” as sung by Pearl Bailey, Jack Crowder, Winston DeWitt Hemsley and Roger Lawson on the aforementioned 1967 Hello, Dolly! recording. See if you agree with me that this is one of the best show songs of all time.
February 23: Sunday’s over, and it’s a Monday morning again. Playing “First Thing Monday Morning” from Purlie will help resurrect you and get your juices flowing.
February 24: Spring training is now in full swing for major league baseball. Play “Six Months out of Every Year” from the Damn Yankees soundtrack – not original cast album, mind you, but the soundtrack. For the 1958 film was smart and sensitive enough to include a black couple among the wives who mourn their husbands’ obsession with the Washington Senators. Yes, the nation’s capital has long been a district that African-Americans have called home, but bless directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen for acknowledging that when many other films of the era would not.
February 25: In 2000, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party gets strong reviews, especially for Taye Diggs as Black. His part in “Poor Child” helps to make it a powerful duet, but his solo “I’ll Be Here” is especially noticed by the critics.
February 26: This is actually a minor holiday called “Tell a Fairy Tale Day.” Finian’s Rainbow qualifies because of its leprechaun. But bookwriters E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy had much more on their minds. They wondered how a bigoted white man would feel if he suddenly turned black. Then he’d know how the other 11% lived in 1947. Listen to all of one of Broadway’s best scores.
February 27: Elizabeth Welch is born 1904, so play “I Must Have That Man,” the number in which she appeared in Blackbirds of 1928. Again, original cast albums weren’t yet being made back then, so you’ll have to hear the song on the 1953 studio cast album – alas, without Welch.
February 28: Reserve this day for Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, which, through song and dance, gives us centuries’ worth of Black History in far less than a month’s time. And get ready for March – which is Women’s History Month.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.