by Teddy Tenenbaum (@teddyt)
We talk about how African Americans invented rock and roll. We talk about the great musicians Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy, the giant of ragtime and the “Father of the Blues.” Before rock and roll was a gleam in Chuck Berry’s mother’s eye, Jazz was the great American music form, a creation of Black artists.
And of course, rap and R&B rule the Billboard charts in the 21st century. And a century before Lil Nas X reimagined country music, the genre was born with the help of the banjo, a descendent of the West African lute brought to America by Africans who were enslaved, and with inspiration from early forms of Black music, such as spirituals and “field tunes.”
But there’s one more great American musical tradition, one where the contributions of Black people is sometimes forgotten, often under-appreciated. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that African Americans are often ignored when the discussion turns to the history of the Broadway musical, when Broadway itself is known as the “Great White Way.”
Broadway has never been an easy world for an outsider to break in, even when that outsider is White, wealthy, and part of the New York establishment. Mounting a Broadway show costs a small fortune, and there’s no cheap or easy way to distribute it. It’s a medium for people with powerful connections or large assets.
But African-American artists have made a tremendous impact, primarily as writers and performers, but also as creators of source material for Broadway shows and music. I don’t profess to be a historian of Broadway or African-American music, but I will do my best to take you on a fan’s journey through the long, storied history of African Americans and Broadway.
To limit the scope a bit, this playlist is focused on Broadway shows only, ignoring the contributions made to Hollywood musicals, Off-Broadway, regional theater and West End theater in London. And even though I could add another hundred amazing cuts (thanks to Hamilton, Dreamgirls, Jelly’s Last Jam, etc.), I’ve limited the playlist to one crucial number from each show… with two notable exceptions (and for good reason).
These liner notes contain a short intro for every cut, but you don’t need them to enjoy the music. So without further ado, curtains up on the historic African-American tradition on Broadway, aka the Great Black Way.
Personal note: This playlist is dedicated to Good Black News’ Lori Lakin Hutcherson (who suggested and inspired it, and who has always inspired me), and musicologist Chris Molanphy, whose Slate columns on music and podcast Hit Parade feed the hungry amateur music historian in me.
- “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (1921)
Even though Shuffle Along was not the first Broadway musical featuring a Black cast in a Broadway theater (that distinction belongs to In Dahomey in 1903), it was the first Broadway musical written, composed and performed entirely by Black artists. Previous to the opening of Shuffle Along, there hadn’t been a successful “Black musical” on Broadway in 12 years, which made it particularly hard to mount the production. (Not to mention the fact that just a couple of decades before, African-Americans were prohibited from performing for White audiences, unless in – believe it or not – blackface). But Black vaudevillians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles teamed with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (who wrote the music and lyrics) and put every nickel they could find into creating this musical comedy. It paid off; Shuffle Along was a huge success. Shuffle Along deserves note for a few other reasons. It was the first production where a White audience witnessed two Black people on stage romancing and touching each other. It also helped launch the careers of two legends – Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker.
- Ol’ Man River” (1927)
Six years before Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Showboat, a musical about a Mississippi River showboat, Paul Robeson was making his powerful baritone heard in Shuffle Along. His star only grew from there, and Hammerstein and Kern specifically wrote the crucial Showboat role of Joe for Robeson. Sadly, he wasn’t available for the original production, but took over the role in the 1932 revival and the film adaptation. Because one can’t think of Ol’ Man River without thinking of Robeson, his is the version I’ve included on this playlist. When Hammerstein and Kern adapted the Edna Ferber novel that among other things deals with prejudice in the South, they changed Broadway forever. It is generally considered the first successful musical to bring a serious topic to the genre, which was a revelation after years of vaudeville, revues, and musical comedies. It was also the first well-known racially integrated musical and the first musical to deal with the issue of interracial marriage. And it also has its share of controversy due to the stereotypical use of vernacular and its outdated stereotypes. But it was another milestone for African-Americans on Broadway.
- “Summertime” (1935)
So much has been written about Porgy and Bess and its treatment of African-American characters, both bad and good. Porgy and Bess has its detractors and supporters. It is a troubling artifact of American culture’s history of the depiction of African Americans. But no one can deny the impact the show has had on American pop culture. In fact, “Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in history (over 25,000 times)! Which is why, instead of featuring the original version, I decided to include one of the most famous covers, by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This is also to make the point that just as Broadway has used African-American artists, African-American artists have used Broadway music to great advantage. In fact, Louis Armstrong makes one more appearance on this playlist, in a similar historical role.
- “Tomorrow Mountain” (1946)
Beggar’s Holiday didn’t run for long on Broadway, but it is notable because it was Duke Ellington’s only theatrical musical produced on Broadway. There is no existing cast recording from the original run, but Lena Horne recorded a swinging version for her Stormy Weather album in 1957.
- “Bali Ha’i” (1949)
While Broadway did a particularly bad job elevating African-American voices until the late 20th century, the mostly liberal creators of Broadway shows were weaving the issues of racial injustice through both drama and musical theater. South Pacific was a way for creators Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to make a statement about America’s post-war racism without being branded as Communists (during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s). One of the most well-known songs from the show, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” is about how we are taught to hate other races from the earliest ages, and the show deals with interracial marriage and the White Southern female lead’s eventual acceptance of the mixed-race children of her true love. Ironically, one of the most famous actors in the original production is the tremendous Juanita Hall, who won a Tony for her performance as Bloody Mary, and while Mary is Polynesian, Hall is mixed race, with an African-American father and Irish-American mother. In fact, Hall was the first African-American woman to win this award, and the first African-American to win any Tony. (While Broadway doesn’t have a great history of lifting African-American voices, its history of awarding Black performers is much, much better, as we’ll soon see).
- “Mark Twain” (1954)
While Broadway has not been great for African-American artists, the official awards of Broadway, The American Theater Wing’s Tony Awards, has been far better. Black artists have been nominated for literally hundreds of Tony Awards and won approximately 100. And in 1954, four years after Ms. Hall won her Tony, the great Harry Belafonte was the first Black man to win a Tony, this one for his performance in the musical revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
- “Hello, Dolly” (1964)
Broadway music had incredible crossover appeal in the early days of American pop music, and this was in no small thanks to Black artists. Hello, Dolly was a huge hit on Broadway in mid-1960s, and the title number was sung by the legendary Carol Channing, who won a Tony for her performance. Ms. Channing was multiracial; her grandmother was African American. But it was Louis Armstrong whose version won over America. In fact, Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly” was the song that ended the Beatles remarkable run of three consecutive number one Billboard hits (thanks, Chris Molanphy), and made Armstrong the oldest artist to ever hold the number-one spot on the Hot 100. Five years later, Hollywood adapted the movie with Barbra Streisand in the title role, and Armstrong was cast in the film so he could sing his immortal version along with Babs. (Interestingly, after Channing left the show, a number of well-known actresses played the title role, including Pearl Bailey in an all-Black cast).
- “Colored Spade” (1968)
This song contains a litany of offensive terms, including the n-word. But this is the entire point of the song. Hair was a shock to the world in 1968, and still is in some ways. The show includes a diverse cast, naked actors, drug use, and a song that is simply a list of sex acts. But more importantly, it confronted race in America the way no other musical had to that point. And it was a huge success, so it spread its message of America’s inherent racism to the masses. Meanwhile, the show was greeted with violence and protests across the country. Of course, they weren’t called riots since they were entirely made up of White folks.
- “I Got Love” (1970)
Hair changed Broadway. It also helped change Broadway for African-American artists. More and more Black characters would be regulars in shows, African-American stories would be showcased, and source material adapted. Purlie was an example of the changing times. Purlie was based on renowned writer/actor Ossie Davis’ novel Purlie Victorious (1961), and it tells a story set during the Jim Crow period in the South. The Purlie cast includes a roster of actors who went on to film, television and recording fame, including Cleavon Little in the title role, Melba Moore, Sherman Helmsley, and later, Robert Guillaume in the title role. Both Little and Moore won Tonys for their performances.
- “Magic to Do” (1972)
No list of Black Broadway stars is complete without one of the greatest, the amazing, multi-talented Ben Vereen. By 1972, Mr. Vereen had already appeared in the film version of Sweet Charity and been nominated for his role in the original Jesus Christ, Superstar on Broadway. But his turn as “Leading Player,” the co-lead of Pippin, turned him into an acting/singing/dancing superstar. In the world of Broadway fans, Vereen’s performance as Leading Player is still considered one of the all-time greats.
- “Thank Heaven for You” (1972)
Okay, full disclosure: I knew nothing about this musical or song until I started researching songs for this playlist, but after what I discovered, I realized it had to be included, no matter how obscure. In 1972, a show called Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope was mounted on Broadway. It was a revue of songs focusing on the African-American experience, from student protests to Black Power to life in tenements. It ran for well over two years, which is generally considered a success on Broadway, especially for a less costly production. But it’s mostly unknown today. What makes this show particularly notable is that it was the first Broadway show to be directed by an African-American as well as an African-American woman, Vinnette Carol. It was also the first Broadway show to have music and lyrics written by an African-American woman, have a book nominated for a Tony, for directing a musical, and the first to have an African-American woman nominated for a Tony for Best Score. (The Broadway cast album is not available on Spotify, so we’ve included this cover by R&B singer Pat Lundy.)
- “Ease on Down the Road” (1975)
The Wiz was the brainchild of producer Ken Harper, who hired composer Charlie Smalls (also African-American) to write the music. Starring an all-Black cast, this re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz almost didn’t make it. Early reviews were mixed, so the producers tried a number of strategies to save the show, including running a TV spot with “Ease on the Down the Road.” The song was recorded by disco group Consumer Rapport (remember them? Neither do I). But the Consumer Rapport version hit number one on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music chart, and soon the Broadway show was selling out. Of course, the song was released a few later when The Wiz was made into a film, this time recorded by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. This version peaked just out of the top 40 on the Hot 100 chart and at number 17 on the Hot Soul Singles chart. I’d love to include the Broadway version on this list, but unfortunately it’s not available on Spotify, so here’s the knockout version by Diana and Michael. Notable, The Wiz received eight Tony nominations, including Best Costume Design, Best Choreography, and Best Musical, and won Tonys for Best Score, Best Direction, Best Featured Actor, Best Leading Actress, and Best Musical (Harper also became the first African-American to win this award as Producer).
- “Montage, Part 3: Gimme the Ball” (1975)
The smash hit A Chorus Line, which was the longest-running Broadway show in history when it closed, is not known for breaking any records for Black artists. That said, the supporting character of Richie, originally played by Ronald Dennis, has one of the most remembered moments in the show. And there’s a surprising story behind it. According to an interview with Mr. Dennis, the show’s composer Marvin Hamlisch had not written him a song. A few weeks into rehearsals, the show’s director and choreographer, Michael Bennett, pulled Mr. Dennis aside and sang a quick tune that he wanted for Richie called “Gimme the Ball.” Then he told Ronald Dennis to finish the song! After working on it for a bit with the show’s drummer and Hamlisch’s musical assistant, Dennis went home, “channeled Aretha Franklin,” and finished the song. He gets no credit, but if this story is true, he’s another part of Broadway’s history of African-American composers.
- “Off-Time” (1978)
All-Black casts were becoming more common, and 1978 saw another amazing one. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is another revue, a tribute to the music of the Harlem Renaissance and the songs of Fats Waller. Although Ain’t Misbehavin’ technically has a traditional Broadway book, it doesn’t have much of a story. But it does have a remarkable Broadway cast. The original production featured Nell Carter, Irene Cara, André DeShields (we’ll be hearing a lot more from him on this list), Charlayne Woodard and Ken Page (who voiced the Oogie Boogie Man in The Nightmare Before Christmas and who I had the extreme pleasure of working with on an amazing TV show called South Central.) Ain’t Misbehavin’ was nominated for five Tonys and won three of them, including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Carter. Ms. Carter went on to win an Emmy for the same role when the show was remade as a television special in 1982.
- “The Hills of Tomorrow / Merrily We Roll Along/ Rich and Happy” (1980)
When fans and critics talk about the most important voice in modern American theater, there’s really not that much debate. Composer/Lyricist Stephen Sondheim has collected eight Tony awards, eight Grammy awards, an Oscar, a Lifetime Achievement Award (Tony), and his shows have won a warehouse full of statues. Even total Broadway neophytes have some knowledge of Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, West Side Story, and “Send in the Clowns.” I wish I could say that Sondheim’s shows have a history of great diversity and that I’ll be including a number of cuts on this playlist, but alas, I can’t. That said, in 1976, Sondheim created Pacific Overtures, with a cast entirely made of Asian-American actors (even playing the White characters), something incredibly rare even 45 years later. Lin-Manuel Miranda has name-checked Pacific Overtures, saying that without it, Hamilton doesn’t exist.
Back to the song. In 1980 Sondheim created Merrily We Roll Along and cast 28 young, unknown actors. Some of them were young Black actors, and one of them speaks the first words in the show (included in this song). His name is Giancarlo Esposito, he was 22, and as you probably know, he went on to incredible success in film and television. (By the way, this was not Esposito’s first cast recording. When he was 10 years old, he played an orphan in a show called Maggie Flynn, alongside two other young performers you may have heard of – Irene Cara and Stephanie Mills).
- “Thank God I’m Old” (1980)
Broadway has always been interested in re-interpreting history with music. In 1980, composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart took a stab at telling the story of showman (and con-man) P.T. Barnum, of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Broadway doesn’t typically shy away from darker themes, but P.T. Barnum escapes some of the more despicable parts of his history in this telling. Case in point, one of Barnum’s “performers” was Joyce Heth, an enslaved woman who he exhibited as the “oldest woman in the world.” He purchased her and earned quite a bit of money from her, purportedly, but did not free her. Heth became quite famous due to Barnum’s claim that she was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s nanny. Joyce Heth has a song in Barnum, and was played by Terri White, a very successful Broadway actress whose story is almost as interesting as that of Joyce Heth. In addition to Barnum, Ms. White appeared in Ain’t Misbehavin’ as well as a number of other shows. But in the 2000s, White went through a rough time and was homeless for a period. She was recognized by an NYPD officer, who helped her find a place to live. Ms. White continued her career, which included appearing in the revival of Chicago, the revival of Sondheim’s Follies, and went on to garner coveted Drama Desk award nominations.
- “Sophisticated Ladies” (1981)
A few years after Fats Waller got the Broadway revue treatment, it was Sir Duke’s turn. The stellar cast included Gregory Hines, Phyllis Hyman, Hinton Battle, and Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington’s son. Mr. Hines and Ms. Hyman received Tony nominations for their work (and the show was nominated for Best Musical), while Mr. Battle took a Tony statue home. A couple of years later, Mr. Battle won the Tony again (for The Tap Dance Kid), becoming the first African-American artist to win two Tonys, and in 1991 he won again for Miss Saigon, becoming the first African-American artist to win three Tonys.
- “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (1982)
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve likely been wondering when this song would come up. If this list weren’t in chronological order, this song from the super-hit Dreamgirls, a show about a fictional 1960s Motown girl group, would have been number one. There really aren’t many Broadway numbers more iconic than this one, and this performance specifically. Jennifer Holliday knocked audiences on their butts night after night with this song. The year the show opened, “And I Am Telling You” was released as single, Ms. Holliday’s first, and it topped Billboard’s Hot R&B chart. And then, 24 years later, when the film version of Dreamgirls was released, the song became Jennifer Hudson’s first single as well. Both actresses garnered awards for their role (a Tony and an Oscar, respectively). JHUD, who began her career as a hugely popular American Idol contestant, went on to chart at least ten more times. But “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” will always be her first. Excuse me while I go back to listen to it again.
- “Free at Last” (1985)
Three years after Jennifer Holliday won the Tony for her performance in Dreamgirls, Ron Richardson won the Tony for his performance in Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Mr. Richardson played Jim. He played this role in a number of productions and staged concerts around the world. He appeared in two more Broadway shows in the next decade, but sadly died in 1995 at only 43.
- “Sarafina” (1987)
The show Sarafina originated in South Africa, but moved to Broadway in 1987 after success in Johannesburg. It tells the story of the Soweto Uprising in South Africa in 1976. After success on Broadway, it was made into a film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo, the South African actress who originated the role on Broadway. Ms. Khumalo was nominated for a Tony for her performance. The show also received numerous other nominations for Black artists, including Best Score, by the legendary composer/musician Hugh Masekela and Mbongeni Ngema.
- “Waiting for Life” (1990)
The 1990s were a good time for The Great Black Way. Shows written by African Americans and starring African Americans proliferated (at least as compared to previous decades). It started with Once on This Island. Since its original production in 1990, Once on This Island has become a beloved piece of modern musical theater, performed all over the world and in high schools from coast to coast. The show, based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, tells the story of humans, Gods, and class distinctions in the French Antilles. The lead actress, LaChanze, was nominated for her work in the show. Here she is singing “Waiting for Life,” Once on This Island’s “I want” song. (The “I want” song is a song traditionally sung by the lead character towards the beginning of a musical that finds the character singing about what they are missing in their life and what can fill that void. Think “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz.)
- “That’s How You Jazz” (1992)
“That’s How You Jazz” from Jelly’s Last Jam is what I call a “how-to” song. In a “how-to” song, a character (usually the lead) teaches other characters how to sing, dance, or write a song, usually a specific genre the characters don’t know. Some famous examples include “Seventy Six Trombones” from The Music Man, and “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music (arguably the most famous how-to song of all time). In “That’s How You Jazz,” Jelly Roll Morton, the great jazzman, played by Gregory Hines, instructs the Dance Hall crowd on how he puts together a jazz tune. Jelly’s Last Jam was the fifth nomination for actor/singer/tap wizard Hines, and resulted in his first and only win, but he would go on to win a number of other awards, including two NAACP Image Awards and an Emmy. He appeared in more than 40 movies, but will always be known on Broadway as a star of musical theater, and one of the greatest dancers of all time.
Jelly’s Last Jam is the first jukebox musical on our list. A jukebox musical (a genre that has become incredibly popular on Broadway) is a musical where most or all of the songs were previously written and recorded by other artists and are patchworked together around a story for the musical. As all the songs in Jelly’s Last Jam were originally written by Jelly Roll Morton, Jelly’s Last Jam is one of the shows on Broadway where the music and lyrics were written exclusively by a Black artist.
- “Caldonia” (1992)
Five Guys Named Moe is another entry on the list where the music and lyrics were written by a Black artist, in this case the renowned bandleader and composer Louis Jordan. In 1943, Mr. Jordan created a short musical of the same name. Writer Clarke Peters wasn’t born yet, but almost 50 years later he would take up the mantle and expand Five Guys Named Moe to a full-length musical, adding a couple dozen Jordan tunes to the show (Mr. Peters performed in the show as well). One section of the show takes place in a club where the Moes play a number of songs. “Caldonia” is taken from that scene. Five Guys Named Moe was nominated for Best Musical and Mr. Peters was nominated for Best Book from a Musical.
- “Brotherhood of Man” (1995)
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, originally produced in 1961, is not a show known for its Black characters or performers. But the 1995 revival cast featured Lillias White in the role of Miss Jones, the only employee in the office of the World Wide Wicket Company who is not clawing over another employee to get to the top or to find a spouse. In this satirical look at 1960s corporate culture, Miss Jones is the world-weary, ironic eye watching and commenting on the insanity around her. When I sat down in my seat at the Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th in 1995, I admit I was there for Matthew Broderick (yes, that’s Ferris Bueller singing the opening chords). And his performance was a joy. But the performer who made me leap to my feet during the curtain call was Lillias White (and Megan Mullaly). Ms. White has brought down the house in a multitude of productions, including Cats, Chicago, Once on this Island, and The Life (which is featured later on this list). I don’t think you’ll have any trouble figuring out when she comes into this song. Just listen for the part where your speakers blow up.
- “Hound Dog” (1995)
A dozen or so years ago, I played this version of “Hound Dog” from Smokey Joe’s Cafe for a friend. She was stunned, and suggested that if it had been originally recorded like this, Elvis Presley’s version would be forgotten. “It was originally recorded like this,” I told her. By Big Mama Thornton. While her version is sadly a far superior footnote in rock and roll history, Smokey Joe’s Cafe celebrated it, and a couple dozen other songs by the songwriting team of Lieber and Stoller. The revue-style show featured a cast of amazing singers, including Brenda Braxton, Victor Trent Cook, and B.J. Crosby, who sings “Hound Dog,” and all three were nominated for Tonys.
- “Seasons of Love” (1996)
Rent probably featured the most diverse cast of any major Broadway show since Hair had debuted nearly three decades earlier. (I’m probably leaving an obvious show out – feel free to email and I’ll correct this). The show, loosely based on the opera La Boheme, tells the stories of a group of struggling artists in lower Manhattan, focusing on a central tragic romance, with AIDS replacing tuberculosis as the heroine’s illness. Rent propelled the careers of both Taye Diggs and Jesse L. Martin, both of whom can be heard in “Seasons of Love.”
- “The Long Beat Swing” (1996)
Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk is unlike anything that ever lived on a Broadway stage. It’s a history of the Black experience in America, told through tap dance. Stunningly choreographed by Savion Glover, each number represented a different period or subject in African-American history. The show was conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe, who is one of the most important figures in modern theater history, both musical and non-musical. Mr. Wolfe is a playwright, producer, theater director and film director. Among other shows, he directed the original production of Angels in America (unquestionably one of the most lauded pieces in modern theater). Mr. Wolfe is one of the most decorated personages in theater, and has more nominations than any other African-American artist, at 24 nominations. Only one African-American artist has more Tony wins, and we’ll get to her in a moment. It’s difficult to appreciate the full experience listening to a recording of Bring in Da Noise, so I encourage you to check out some of the videos of the show on YouTube.
- “The Oldest Profession” (1997)
Remember Lillias White from “Brotherhood of Man” (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). The Life was the show for which she won her Tony. The Life, composed by the legendary Cy Coleman, tells the story of the somewhat seedy denizens of Times Square before Rudy Giuliani turned Broadway into Disneyland New York. You can probably guess what job “The Oldest Profession” is about.
- “Wheels of a Dream” (1998)
Full disclosure – this song represents one of my most profound moments in the theater, so excuse the tones of reverence. In 1994, Audra MacDonald bounded onto the Broadway stage and into musical theater history, winning a Tony for her performance in the revival of Carousel. It was one of the earlier instance of “color-blind” casting in a major Broadway musical where a person of color played a role specifically written for a White actor (how many times had the opposite occurred – a White actor playing a role written for a person of color? Too many to count). It was clear to all who saw her performance that she was an incredible talent. By the age of 27, she was a two-time Tony winner. Meanwhile, Brian Stokes Mitchell was making waves (and had been for a decade) in shows like Jelly’s Last Jam and Kiss of the Spider Woman. In 1998, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, creators of Once on this Island, adapted E.L Doctorow’s majestic novel of the societal changes of the early 20th century, Ragtime. Ms. McDonald and Mr. Mitchell were cast opposite each other as Sarah and Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The show deals with the most pressing issues of the era, including racism, xenophobia, worker exploitation, anti-semitism, and how violence threaded through it all. The song “Wheels of a Dream” is Coalhouse’s and Sarah’s song of hope that the nation is changing (inspired by Booker T. Washington), and their dream that their baby will have a great future in a new America. It’s a heartbreaker, and these two actors brought the audience to tears every night (and both won Tonys for their performances).
- “Easy as Life” (2000)
Heather Hadley originated the role of Nala in the Broadway production of The Lion King, so when Disney and composer Elton John were looking for the title role for their adaptation of the Verdi opera Aida, they looked to Ms. Hadley. It was a smart choice. She won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. It’s also worth noting that the show was based not only on the opera but also a children’s’ book version written by diva Leontyne Price. Disney acquired the book with the intent to make an animated film of it, but Elton John was more interested in a staged show, so the film concept was shelved.
- “Big Black Man” (2000)
This is the third time the debonair singer-dancer-choreographer André DeShields has appeared on this list (after Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Wiz, in which he originated the title role). Mr. DeShields starred as Horse, the sole black dancer in the Chippendale’s-inspired naked dance troupe that is the core of The Full Monty, a musical adaptation of the 1997 British film. The Full Monty was Mr. DeShields’ second Tony nomination, but when not acting, singing and dancing on Broadway, he directs and choreographs theater. He’s won numerous other awards, including an Emmy, and he appears once more on this list, at the very end. Depending on when you read this, you might actually be able to see him in a Tony-winning role on Broadway right now (see the last song on the playlist).
- “Run and Tell That” (2002)
Musicals have a long history of tackling racial issues, but usually with the deadly serious tone the subject deserves. But Hairspray proves that comedy can be just as effective. Based on the 1988 John Waters film, Hairspray tells the story of 1962 Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teen obsessed with The Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand style show. After getting to know the Black kids at her high school, Tracy joins the kids to integrate the show and along the way helps create social change in Baltimore. Yeah, she’s the White savior. But thankfully a couple of plum roles and songs belong to Black actors, and the music is all inspired by Motown. “Run and Tell That” is sung by Seaweed Stubbs (Corey Reynolds) and little sister Little Inez (Danielle Eugenia Wilson), as he introduces the White kids to his side of Baltimore.
- “Our Little World” (2002)
In 1987, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a modern mash-up of fairy tales, exploded on Broadway, in no small part thanks to the knockout performance of Bernadette Peters, who won a Tony for her role. For the 2002 Broadway revival, actress-singer Vanessa Williams was asked to play the role of the Witch originated by Peters. Ms. Williams was nominated for a Tony for the role. The song “Our Little World,” sung by the Witch and her daughter Rapunzel, was not included in the original Broadway production, so Ms. Williams debuted the song on Broadway. It’s a lovely addition to the show, and since its introduction in the original London production has become a regular part of Into the Woods.
- “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (2003)
If you haven’t seen Avenue Q, a little explanation might be in order (as difficult as it might be). Inspired by Sesame Street, Avenue Q is a musical-comedy that tells the story of a group of friends struggling to get by in NYC’s Alphabet City, and those friends happen to be humans and puppets. And some of the puppets happen to be monsters. (Still with us?) Like on Sesame Street, the characters tackle the delicate subjects of race, identity, sexual orientation, and porn (okay, Sesame Street might avoid that one.) But it hits these subjects in decidedly child-unfriendly ways. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is just about the most irreverent and shocking way to tackle racism, so prepare yourself. (It’s also brilliant). One last note about Avenue Q: one of the characters is Gary Coleman. As in Diff’rent Strokes Gary Coleman. Originally, the producers wanted Coleman to play himself, naturally. But after Mr. Coleman didn’t show up for an initial meeting, the producers decided to go elsewhere… but still keep the Gary Coleman character. In most of the productions, Gary is played by a woman, and in the original cast was played by Natalie Venetia Belcon.
- “Skid Row (Downtown)” (2003)
The original production of Little Shop of Horrors, loosely based on and satirizing the horror B-movie from 1960, was an off-Broadway behemoth. At the time, it was the third-longest running and highest-grossing production in Off-Broadway history. But instead of moving the show to Broadway, the show’s creators declined, feeling that Off-Broadway was where Little Shop belonged. It wouldn’t be on the list without the Broadway revival of 2003. None of the lead characters are African-American (although a recent well-received production in Pasadena featured African-American transgender actress MJ Rodriguez as the romantic lead), but the show is narrated by a Motown-girl-group-inspired Greek chorus. Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette (get it?) are the moral center of the show, and have a couple of the best numbers in the musical, including the scene-setter “Skid Row (Downtown).”
- “Laundry Quintet” (2004)
George C. Wolfe received one of his numerous Tony nominations when he teamed with composer Jeanine Tesori (the most decorated female composer in musical theater history) and writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America) to tell the story of a Black maid working for a Jewish family in 1962 Louisiana in Caroline, or Change. This incredibly rich and complex show was honored with a half dozen Tony nominations and awards, including a nomination for Actress Tonya Pinkins and a win for Anika Noni Rose (also known to many as Tiana, the Disney Princess from The Princess and the Frog).
- “Baptist Fashion Show” (2008)
Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographical show written by musician Stew, and one of my favorites on the list. Passing Strange tells the story of a young musician who moves from South Central to Europe and goes on a physical and existential journey as he discovers what it means to be Black in Europe, as opposed to being an African-American. And although Stew references Shakespeare as his inspiration, for me the show evokes the themes and settings of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, if not the plot. The songs in the show cover multiple genres, including rock, gospel, jazz, and punk. (Although punk is not typically associated with Black artists, some of the pioneers of punk were African-American, especially Bad Brains, and of course many of the great punk bands were heavily influenced by reggae.) Stew was awarded the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, and was nominated for Best Score, Best Actor, and Best Musical. Spike Lee filmed a performance of Passing Strange, which as of this writing is available on Apple. The show was staged more as a rock concert with a story than a traditional musical, and is well worth your time.
- “Breaking it Down (BID) – High Life (Messi Messi)/Yellow Fever (2009)
“BID” is the second “how-to” song on our list. In “BID” from the show Fela!, famed Nigerian singer Fela Kuti (Sahr Ngaujah) breaks down afrobeat. The powerful show tells the story of Fela Kuti’s life, from his pioneering of afrobeat music to his fight against the oppressive regime in his homeland. The remarkable Lillias White (see “Brotherhood of Man” and “The Oldest Profession” earlier on this playlist) won another Tony nomination for Fela!, and Mr. Ngaujah was nominated for his portrayal of the eponymous character. “BID” is another jukebox musical entry on the playlist, and as such Fela! is another show on the list with the music and lyrics written by a Black artist, Fela Kuti himself, as most of the music is music he wrote during his incredible career.
- “Underground” (2009)
What better way to tell the story of how African Americans invented rock and roll then through the eyes of a White DJ who played their music on his radio show? Yeah, that’s sarcasm. Nonetheless, that’s how the 2009 show Memphis decides to approach the subject. The show is loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, one of the first White DJs to play Black music to a White audience in the 1950s. The show tells the story of Huey Calhoun, who champions Black musicians in Memphis, bucking the local White establishment. While promoting the music of performer Felicia Farrell, he falls in love with her and they carry on a secret interracial relationship. The show was awarded a Tony for Best Musical, and Montego Glover was Tony nominated for her portrayal of Felicia. The show was written by David Bryan, who was Bon Jovi’s keyboardist and wrote many of the group’s songs. And of course the music is inspired not only by the Black roots of rock and roll, but also blues and gospels.
- “Do the Sacred Mass” (2011)
As we enter the 2010s, it becomes harder to find musicals that are original, not based on feature films or previously published music. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though. But they might not be as daring as earlier shows. It’s a little surprising that it took almost 20 years to translate the hit movie Sister Act into a musical, as it seems an obvious choice. Sister Act was produced by Whoopi Goldberg, but it was not her first rodeo on Broadway. Of course she had appeared in her groundbreaking eponymous show Whoopi in 1984, but she had also previously produced (and starred in) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a masterwork of the American theater – ten plays that tell the story of African-Americans through the decades, with one for each decade. Ms. Goldberg received a Tony nomination for Best Play producing Sister Act, but as a performer, Ms. Goldberg sat out the Broadway production (she had appeared in the London show). Patina Miller was nominated for her work in the leading role created on film by Whoopi Goldberg.
- “Somebody’s Got Your Back” (2011)
While we’re on the subject of Broadway remakes of films, we have to talk about Disney. Disney has produced a number of remakes of their films on Broadway, and they’ve actually done a good job of casting Black artists in roles that were originally played by White actors, beginning with The Lion King. When they tackled Aladdin, they cast the plum role of the Genie, originally played by Robin Williams, with James Monro Iglehart. Instead of including any of the well-known tunes from the animated film on the playlist, we chose a song that was written especially for the show and is sung by the Genie and Aladdin. Disney fans, enjoy. Mr. Iglehart won Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Aladdin, and can currently be seen on Broadway in the role of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton.
- “Sex is in the Heel” (2012)
And for our third movie remake in a row, we move to a less likely contender. Kinky Boots is an indie British film from 2005 which probably no one assumed was crying out for a Broadway musical remake, although like The Full Monty, the movie did prominently include music. It turned out to be a good move, because Kinky Boots, the musical, is arguably a bigger hit than the film ever was. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor played the role of Lola, a drag queen who turns around a bottomed-up, failing shoe company by designing sexy boots for the drag queen market. For the Broadway show, the producers and creators (including Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the music and lyrics and the book, respectively) tapped Billy Porter for the role of Lola. Mr. Porter had originally appeared as Teen Angel in the revival of Grease, and performed in numerous Off-Broadway and regional shows, including a one-person autobiographical show which he wrote, but Lola was his first starring role on Broadway. He won a Tony for his performance, and is now a undeniable superstar.
- “On the Right Track” (2013)
If you read the intro and you’re still with us, you’ve finally reached the promise of a second track from a single show. The great Ben Vereen made his mark on Broadway in the role of the “Leading Player” in Pippin in 1973. 40 years later, the revival cast a woman in the same role, and chose the incredibly talented Patina Miller, who was nominated two years earlier for her role in Sister Act. Is was an inspired choice. The Tony Awards agreed. Ms. Miller won a Tony for her role, just as Mr. Vereen had 40 years earlier.
- “Reach Out and Touch” (2013)
There’s probably no more obvious choice for a Jukebox musical than the music of Motown. And maybe the title (Motown: The Musical) is a little too obvious? Motown: The Musical tells the life story of Berry Gordy, the impresario of the Motown Records label. The musical features an ear-popping 66 songs from the Motown catalog, although most of them are presented as medleys. Actors play a myriad of music legends, including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Michael Jackson, although the showstopper is probably Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross, as you can hear in this song. Ms. LeKae nails Diana Ross’ breathy, smoky delivery, and was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal.
- “Crazy He Calls Me” (2014)
We’re breaking a rule for Lady Day. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is called “a play with music,” not a musical. At the Tony Awards, it competed in the play categories, not the musical ones. With a dozen songs and a script to go along with them, why would Lady Day not be considered a musical? Because the show’s producers wanted to break a historic record. As the show opened on Broadway, Audra McDonald had won five Tony Awards, including at least one award in three of the four acting categories, Featured Actress in a Musical, Featured Actress in a Play, and Leading Actress in a Musical. She had not won the award for Leading Actress in a Play. And that’s what the producers of Lady Day were after – a historic win. No performer had ever won an award in all four categories. Until Audra McDonald’s turn as Billie Holiday. Ms. McDonald broke another record when she won. With six Tonys, she has won more Tony Awards than any other performer in history. Audra McDonald is without question one of the most important and celebrated performers on the modern Broadway stage.
- “What About Love” (2015)
In the 15 years since The Color Purple was made into a Broadway musical, there have already been two Broadway productions, in 2005 and 2015. We’ve chosen a selection from the 2015 revival simply because of the cast, but both casts were superb, and each garnered numerous Tony nominations. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple was produced in part by Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, who were both involved in the 1985 film adaptation. The music and lyrics for the show were written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, a multiethnic group of songwriters from diverse backgrounds. (Fun fact: Stephen Bray was a founding member of the 80s group The Breakfast Club, who performed the hit “Right on Track,” and wrote a number of songs with Madonna, including “Into the Groove.”) The first production in 2005 starred LaChanze (as Celie), who appears earlier on this playlist as the star of Once on This Island, and who won a Tony for her performance. In 2015, the role of Celie was taken over by Cynthia Erivo, who repeated LaChanze’s feat. The 2015 production also marked the Broadway debut of Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery.
- “Gun and Ships” (2015)
Only one Broadway show in history has won more Tonys than Hamilton – 2001’s The Producers. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that no Broadway show in history has openly owed more to African-American music than Hamilton. Throughout Hamilton, a retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton and his rivalry with his frenemy/killer, Aaron Burr, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda pays homage to the superstars of modern African-American music, including Notorious B.I.G., Beyoncé, DMX, LL Cool J, The Sugarhill Gang, Rihanna, Mobb Deep, and so many others (and okay, Eminem and the Beastie Boys). And unless you’ve been on a deserted island for five years, you also know that Hamilton did more for the cause of “color-conscious” casting than any other show. As opposed to “color-blind” casting, where actors are cast regardless of their ethnicity, “color-conscious” casting takes into account the implications of casting actors of color in certain roles to further the themes and ideas presented by the production.
Color-conscious casting is also an open effort to offset the history of denying roles to people of color in the performing arts in America. Mr. Miranda has said that he would have failed had he cast a “hip-hop musical” with a bunch of White actors, but that’s only part of the story. What he left unsaid, but is clearly felt but the audience, is the inherent power of watching Black and Brown actors in the roles of the White founding fathers singing about oppression, slavery, and immigration, and the racist institutions they helped form.
Hamilton is the only other show on this list, in addition to Pippin, that includes two songs. This is in part due to the enormous impact that Hamilton has had on Broadway (and its immense popularity), and in part to the diversity of African-American musical styles utilized by Hamilton. The first selection is “Guns and Ships,” sung by Tony Award winner Daveed Diggs, chosen partly because it currently holds the world record for fastest rap ever performed on Broadway. Not that there’s a lot of competition in that category. Nevertheless, at 6.3 words per second, “Guns and Ships” is a lyrical marvel.
- “Satisfied” (2015)
Lin-Manuel Miranda has said that the inspiration for the three Schuyler sisters in Hamilton is Destiny’s Child, but Nicki Minaj is specifically channeled in “Satisfied.” You might hear some “Superbass” in the rhythm, and others have called out Busta Rhymes as an inspiration. Mr. Miranda has admitted that he can’t rap the complex lyrics of the song at the speed required, but it was no problem for Renee Elise Goldsberry, who won a Tony for her performance in Hamilton, and became the 17th African-American woman (and the most recent) to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
- “The Road to Hell” (2019)
We close out the playlist moving from the newest stars of Broadway to one of the great veterans. André DeShields has already appeared on this list in Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Wiz, and The Full Monty. In his 70s, DeShields is showing no signs of slowing. Indeed, his latest role is one of his flashiest. Hadestown is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a post-apocalyptic setting that looks and sounds a lot like the Depression (it’s okay, my head spun a little, too). Mr. DeSheilds plays the Greek god Hermès, who acts as both storyteller in Hadestown. “The Road to Hell” opens the show, with Hermès explaining the world we are about to enter. Hadestown won Best Musical at the 2019 Tony Awards, and Mr. DeShields won the award for Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical. Hadestown is touring the U.S. in 2020 and 2021, and I highly recommend you catch it if you can.
Original article source: https://goodblacknews.org/2020/06/12/aamam-the-great-black-way-celebrating-african-americans-on-broadway-listen/ | Article may or may not reflect the views of KLEK 102.5 FM or The Voice of Arkansas Minority Advocacy Council