Bubbling Brown Sugar

It is true that historically the American musical theatre has been dominated by white artists and white stories. There have been a couple of periods of increased activity and evolution in the black musical, in the 1910s and 20s, and again in the early 1970s, but only recently have black artists and stories taken a more active, more visible role in moving our art form forward.

New Line has produced Passing Strange but no other explicitly black musicals. We are proud that our casts are always diverse, but we don't often tell stories from the point of view of people of color. One reason is that there aren't a ton of black musicals -- especially black musicals that aren't written by white people.

But this is something we have to think about, going forward. It's good and important for us to consistently cast actors of color, especially in roles that weren't original played by people of color. But that's not enough. So for the benefit of New Line and other companies, here are some cool, interesting black musicals worth producing.

We won't be able to produce Michael R. Jackson's amazing Pulitzer Prize winning musical A Strange Loop for a while, since they're hoping for a Broadway run before releasing regional production rights. I can't wait to work on this rich, complex, brilliant piece of theatre. But here are some other very cool shows...

Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rosewald, is a brilliant, one-of-a-kind, semi-autobiographical, concept musical about a young black man trying to find his place in the world, constantly being pulled into other people's visions of his path, struggling to find his own path, his own "Real," as he searches for meaning in L.A., Amsterdam, and Berlin. Spike Lee filmed the show on Broadway, and you can get the video here. You can get the original cast album here. You can license production rights here.

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin by Kirsten Childs, follows a black women from he sixties through the nineties, navigating the confusing worlds of racism, sexism and musical theatre until she’s forced to face the devastating effect self-denial has had on her life. The New York Times called the show "…a sharp and tasty new musical…as the show ingeniously turns professional perkiness, the lifeblood of the American musical, into a funny, poignant comment on ethnic self-denial." The Star Tribune called it, "a soul-baring, passionate musical…Childs’ ruminations speak with wisdom and resonance not only to African-American audiences that share her experience and reference, but to any sensitive soul who ever has been on the outside, struggling to fit in." You can get the cast recording here. You can license production rights for the show here.

Bella: An American Tall Tale by Kirsten Childs, is a musical comedy set in the 1870s, re-imagining the Old West mythology from an African American point of view. When Bella boards a train west to reunite with her Buffalo soldier sweetheart, she encounters the most colorful and lively characters ever to roam the Western plains. Bullets and fists will fly, heads and hearts will break, but -- blessed with a big heart, and a voluptuous figure -- Bella will breeze on through it all. You can license production rights for the show here.

Jelly's Last Jam by George C. Wolfe, Susan Birkenhead, Luther Henderson, and Jelly Roll Morton, is an uber-dark concept musical about the life and work of the great musician and jazz innovator Jelly Roll Morton, a story overseen by the mysterious Chimney Man. The show takes us on a journey from the back alleys of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago to the stages of New York with “he who drinks from the vine of syncopation” in a sizzling memoir of pride, lust and a past denied. The original production, chock full of amazing tap numbers, starred Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. You can get the original cast recording here.

The Wiz by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, is the now classic reinvention of the original Wizard of Oz story, reset with a 1970s urban sensibility, and a killer score. Neither the film version or the live TV version are terribly faithful to the stage show. You can license production rights for the show here. You can get the original cast recording here.

Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope by Micki Grant, is a 1971 revue, exploring the African-American experience with songs about tenements, slumlords, ghetto life, student protests, black power, and feminism. The score spans gospel, jazz, funk, soul, calypso, and soft rock. You can hear the entire original cast recording here. You can license production rights for the show here.

Billy Noname by Johnny Brandon and William Wellington Mackey, follows a black kid growing up in the ghetto, exploring the black experience from that day when Joe Louis licked Jimmy Braddock to become heavyweight champion, on beyond the assassination of Martin Luther King. You can hear the entire original cast album here

The Color Purple by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, beautifully adapts Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Celie, a downtrodden young woman whose personal awakening over the course of forty years becomes a story of hope, a testament to the healing power of love, and a celebration of life, with a joyous score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel, African music and blues. You can get the original cast album here. You can license production rights here.

Bubbling Brown Sugar by Loften Mitchell and Rosetta LeNoire, is a wildly entertaining revue and history lesson, featuring the music of numerous African-American artists who were popular during the Harlem Renaissance, including Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.  You can get the original cast album here. You can license production rights here.

Black Nativity by Langstron Hughes, tells the Christmas story with an all-black cast, using traditional carols. You can get one of the cast recordings here.

And that's just a sampling...

Then there's another category -- shows about black characters and black lives, but written entirely by white people. As a white guy, I'm a little torn about these shows. We can't exactly claim these are "black voices," even though several of them are based on novels or plays by black artists; and yet, they're great shows, and they give work to black actors when they're produced.

Should we be exploring only black musicals by black artists, or are these other shows also worthy of exploration right now? When white writers adapt black stories, what does that do to the stories? How do we think about that?

Here are a sampling of excellent black shows, written by white folks... You can decide what you think about them...

The Scottsboro Boys, Kander & Ebb's disturbing masterpiece about the true, tragic story of horrific racial injustice in a 1931 case of false rape allegations, all told in the from of a minstrel show. You can watch a clip of the show from the Tonys here.

Dreamgirls, a brilliant piece of theatre, sort of about Diana Ross and the Supremes, though the show's creators deny it. You can watch a clip from the show on the Tonys here.

Purlie, based on Ossie Davis' brilliant play about sharecroppers in the 1960s in the South. You can watch the whole show here.

Once On This Island, based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy. You can watch a clip from the show on the Tonys here.

The Gospel at Colonus, based on the Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus, brilliantly reset as a black Baptist church service. You can watch the whole show here.

Raisin, based on Larraine Hansberry's legendary play A Raisin in the Sun. You can watch a clip of the show from the Tonys here.

The Tap Dance Kid, based on the novel Nobody's Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh. You can watch a clip of the show from the Tonys here.

Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein's rewrite of the opera Carmen, reset in the American South during World War II, containing lyrics that are sometimes written in a cringe-worthy Southern "dialect."

All of us running companies that produce musicals need to think about what we're producing and what it says about us, our company, our community, our times. Our work should reflect our community, not only through diversity in our casting, etc., but also in the stories we tell.

America is changing. It's important not to get left behind...

Lots to think about...

Long Live the Musical!