Fascinatin' Rhythm

When I wrote my history book, Strike Up the Band, I had two primary agendas. One was to reject the premise of all other musical theatre history books, that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the pinnacle of the art form. It wasn't. The other agenda was to include in the story of our art form all the people of color, the women, the people with disabilities who helped shape the American musical theatre but get left out of almost all history books. I hope I did a decent job of re-balancing our story a little.

But the first draft of my book was about double the length they'd accept. I had to cut so much out of it, including a lot of early, little-known black shows. But I saved all that text. What really fascinated me was the musicals before the turn of the century. George M. Cohan essentially invented what we know as musical comedy in the first decade of the 20th century, with shows like Little Johnny Jones (1904); but there were shows before that, shows I guess I'd call proto-musicals, not exactly the form we know today, but something close.

And there were a lot of black shows!

As the 19th century ended, the first generation of African Americans born free in America finally was coming of age. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated the 1875 Civil Rights Act in 1883, and then had upheld the controversial idea of “separate but equal” for African Americans in 1896, still for a short while, anything was possible for black men in America, especially in the North. Many became doctors and lawyers, studied classical music with the best composers, and became great poets and novelists. The good times only lasted a while, but while they did, great things were accomplished. There wouldn’t be another time like it until the Harlem Renaissance.

And so in 1898, black performers finally joined the fun on Broadway with two all-Black musical comedies, A Trip to Coontown and Clorindy, The Origin of the Cakewalk. Of Clorindy, Bernard L. Peterson Jr. writes in A Century of Musicals in Black and White, “It was probably the first to fully exploit the possibilities of syncopated ragtime music in the theatre; the first to introduce the cakewalk (a staple of the minstrel stage) to sophisticated New York audiences; the first all-black show to play at a major Broadway theatre; and the first to have a white theatre orchestra led by a black conductor.”

In fact, more than thirty all-black shows were staged in Harlem and on Broadway between 1890 and 1915, and for a while some twenty blocks along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan was commonly known as “the African Broadway” because of the number of theatres housing all-black shows. In the first decade of the twentieth century, black men were buying theatres in various parts of the country, eventually forming a black touring circuit of their own.

The big break for Will Marion Cook and Laurence Dunbar’s Clorindy in 1898 is described by composer Will Marion Cook in his autobiography, and quoted by Thomas L. Riis in Just Before Jazz:
I went to see [producer] Ed Rice, and I saw him every day for a month. Regularly, after interviewing a room full of people he would say to me (I was always the last): “Who are you and what do you want?” On the thirty-first day – and by now I am so discouraged this is my last trip – I heard him tell a knockabout act: “Come up next Monday to rehearsal, do a show, and if you make good, I’ll have you on all week.”

I was desperate. On leaving Rice’s office, I went at once to the Greasy Front, a Negro club run by Charlie Moore, with a restaurant in the basement managed by Mrs. Moore. There I was sure to find a few members of my ensemble. I told them a most wonderful and welcome story: we were booked at the Casino Roof! That was probably the most beautiful lie I ever told.

On Monday morning, every man and woman, boy and girl that I had taught to sing my music was at the Casino Roof. Luckily for us, Ed Rice did not appear at rehearsal until very late that morning. By this time, my singers were grouped on the stage and I started the opening chorus. When I entered the orchestra pit, there only about fifty people on the Roof. When we finished the opening chorus, the house was packed to suffocation.

The show was booked.

Cook was born to college educated parents and studied music at Oberlin College in Berlin, and under the great composer Anton Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. When his mother heard him working on the score for Clorindy, she came into the room with tears in her eyes. She said, “Oh Will, I’ve sent you all over the world to study and become a great musician, and you return such a nigger!” Like many other African Americans, she didn’t like the kind of “coon songs” Cook was writing, believing they denigrated the race and contributed to dangerous stereotypes that plagued African Americans. Despite the winning of the Civil War, lynchings continued in the South, the Civil Rights legislation passed after the Civil War was virtually ignored, and there was a major race riot in New York City in August 1900.

But Cook justified his work by noting that it got black men on Broadway for the first time. It was a debate that would go on for a century.

Blacks were finally on Broadway and, most important, not as minstrels and not in black face. Clorindy was the first show created and performed entirely by blacks in a mainstream theatre for an exclusively white audience. After Clorindy’s opening, Will Marion Cook exclaimed, “Negroes are at last on Broadway, and here to stay!”

Cook had not just put blacks on Broadway, he had also put syncopation into Broadway’s musical vocabulary for the first time, something that would distinguish musical comedy music from opera or operetta, forever separating the two, marking perhaps the most important musical moment in the history of Broadway. Cook would go on to write scores for many more all-black musicals over the next fifteen years, including In Dahomey (1903), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908), which the Dramatic Mirror called “one of the rare plays that one feels like witnessing a second time.” Cook became widely regarded as the leader in black musical in America. his show The Southerners in 1904 was the first musical on Broadway with an integrated cast.

Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s A Trip to Coontown not only boasted an all-black cast, but also Broadway’s first black producer, Bob Cole. The title a conscious reference to the very popular A Trip to Chinatown, the show told the story of a black con man who tries to con an older black man out of his $5,000 pension. The show was written in August 1897 and opened in New Jersey for a trial run, before going on tour and then moving to New York.

But the tour was no picnic. Because Cole and Johnson had defected from Black Patti’s Troubadours, that group’s white manager put Cole and Johnson through hell. He convinced black theatre owners around the country to boycott Coontown and convinced black performers that if they performed in Coontown they would be finished. So the show spent a year playing the worst, smallest theatres in the country, while the creators worked on the show. Still, when it came to New York in 1899, it had become such a hit, it suddenly was playing only the best theatres.

The story of Coontown was only barely important, and the show only marginally figures in the development of the American musical, except for the fact that it was the first musical produced, directed, written, and performed by blacks. And producer Cole, after only modest success with Coontown, was determined to push black musical comedy into new, unusual, and exciting places. The show’s program described it as “the Roaring, Racing, Rollicking Musical Comedy.” One Boston review called it, “far and away, the most satisfying extravaganza, white, black, or flushing pink, seen in Boston this season.”

Most people have never heard of these truly important artists, and that's a shame.

The more I researched our art form while writing my history book, the more I discovered people of color all throughout its history -- people and shows who are left out of almost every history book. My Strike Up the Band went pretty far in correcting that problem, but like I said, there was so much more I wanted to write about.

The first time my eyes got opened to the huge role in our history of artists of color, was when I first read Allen Woll's great 1989 book Black Musical Theatre, which I've now read three times over the years. Here are some other excellent books on this topic...

Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera by Ellen Noonan

Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?: The Lives of an American Song by Todd Decker

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical by Todd Decker

Reminiscing with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake by Robert Kimball

Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater by Paula Marie Seniors

They say of politics, if we forget history, we're doomed to repeat it. With theatre, it's more like, if we don't know -- and learn from -- our history, our artistic toolkit is only half full. And I can help.

Long Live the Musical!