The aim of this essay is to evaluate the history of musical theatre and assess how attitudes regarding race have changed, developed or been challenged overtime.
Racism can be defined as Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2019).
Showboat revolutionized the musical theatre world by being the first play with an integrated cast and by taking such a serious theme and implementing, it into a musical environment made it all the more emotional opening the door for black actors.
It is not fully racially integrated in all aspects, but nevertheless, the idea was still very controversial at the time. Before showboat the theatre was reserved for white people, using make up to make black characters noticeable. It is based on Edna Ferbers best-selling novel which Hammerstein and Rodgers created into as some may say the first American play. The original London West End production of Show Boat opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1928.
During the pre-Broadway try-outs, the original production ran for more than four hours, but was reduced to just over three by the time it opened in New York. Showboat tells the story of a family of performers living on Captain Andys show and their struggles with gambling, race and poverty in America 1887. A fight breaks out between Steve Baker and Pete and Steve knocks Pete down Steve is the leading man of the show, and Pete, a rough engineer who had been flirting with Steve’s wife, the leading lady Julie. Pete swears revenge, suggesting he knows a dark secret about Julie. Julie and Steve learn that the town sheriff is coming to arrest them. Pete returns with the sheriff, who insists the show cannot proceed because Julie is a mulatto who has been passing as white when really her mother is black. The local law prohibits mixed marriages, but Steve tells the sheriff that he also has “black blood” in him, so they can remain married as it is legal in Mississippi. The sheriff tells Cotton Blossoms Captain Andy that Julie will have to leave the beat as if people found out that a black woman was trying to pass herself as white, would end up with trouble with the white audiences. Julie suffers racism a number of times including Ellies hysterical renouncing of their friendship as soon as her background is revealed. Captain Andys replaces them with his daughter, Mongolia and a young gamer, Gaylord. Mongolia was smitten with her new partner and seeks advice from Joe, a black dock worker aboard the boat. They soon fall in love and magnolia gets pregnant but sadly Gaylord deserts her in Chicago. Weeks later, Magnolia and Ravenal have been a hit with the crowds and have fallen in love. Six years have passed, and it is 1893. Ravenal and Magnolia have moved to Chicago. By 1903, they have a daughter, Kim however from all the stress over money and providing for the family Ravenal abandons Magnolia and Kim. Captain Andy has a chance meeting with Ravenal and arranges his reunion with Magnolia. Andy knows that Magnolia is retiring and returning to the Cotton Blossom with Kim, who has become a Broadway star. Although Rayenal is uncertain about asking her to take him back, Magnolia, who has never stopped loving him, greets him warmly and does.
Lyricist Hammerstein, a highly respected artist used exceptionally strong language when dealing with the racism issue. He takes the idea that no one is born racist, you must have been brought up to be one. Kern and Hammerstein created the musical for white audiences. There were all kinds of protests and uprisings” during the period covered by Show Boat. (The New York times, 1993) America during the 1920s economy had boomed and there was a high rise in advertising and chain stores. Newly liberated women that were allowed the vote, wear short dresses, listen to jazz music, style their hair and they all inspired to be the IT girl. However, this was tough time for the black African American community and the catholic community as extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were created as they openly racist towards these groups. Segregation got to the point where black people werent even allowed in the same restaurant or bus, making this so difficult for the community to live their lives. Showboat was not shown in the south during this time as it would not have been accepted with the amount of racism during that time. Kern and Hammerstein created the black characters different to the social normal of how they were portrayed on the screen in films or advertisement. The characters were given meaning, they werent just the help they were individuals that were given real emotions. They used songs such as OlMan River a song about the struggles and it really sympathizes the character it is sung by Joe, a black man, one of the stevedores. During Act 1 both white performers and the black workers dance together which had never been seen before on stage. Julie who is the star of the show has mixed blood in her meaning at that time in America it would have been a criminal offence to be married to anyone who doesnt have nigger blood as they refer to it in the musical. (Swardson, 1993). We see at first Julie is introduces as the little sweetheart of the south and Andy claims everyone knows and loves her. She is idolized by many however they dont know her background and in reality if they really knew many of her influences have come from the black community including the songs she sings she would no longer be popular and wouldnt be allowed to perform her own act as someone of a mixed race. And this was another issue showboat brought to light during the 20s, the fear of getting caught. By playing with the emotions of the audience we are led to feel sorrow for Julie’s situation and the fact she is of mixed race seems completely irrelevant, as no one should be treated in such a manner. This is the message Kern and Hammerstein were trying to get across to white viewers, they were trying to change how they had an opinion of black or mixed-race people. So many people in the play like Pete used racist undertones in everyday conversation without thinking twice about it. In reality many people in real life used to however when faced watching in the musical helped open their eyes to their actions.
Hairspray, an American musical produced ¬¬¬¬by Marc Shaiman shows racism in context throughout. Based on the 1988 film written by John Waters, the show was brought to life on Broadway, August 2002.
The musical is set in Baltimore 1962 and tells the story of a plus size teenage girl, Tracy Turnblad who longs to one day perform on the local television dance programme known as The Corney Collins show. Upon starting the show, Tracy became very popular with the majority of the cast especially link. Long nights dancing led to Tracy receiving detentions in school whereby she met lot of new dancers who were black. She later discovered that once a month her new friends were allowed to perform on The Corney Collins shows. This was called negro day. They were not allowed to dance or mingle with the white dancers therefore Tracys closeness was frowned upon. She believes the segregation is unfair after Velma cancels Negro Day and rallies everyone to march against the station which airs the show.
Tracy devises a plan with the help of Link, her parents and her black friends to get them all on the show during a on the show white pageant show. They pull little Inez to the stage to dance and by a late surge of support she wins the pageant. Tracy gets the station manager fired and officially announces the show as integrated. (Ebert 2007) John Waters drew his ideas from real life events during the time of December 1963. Producer’s at Baltimores WJZ TV cancelled the Buddy Deane show – which he was a devoted fan of – rather than integrating the popular teen dance programme. During the years 1957 to 1963 only white teens where allowed to spectate or dance on the weekly broadcast of the Buddy Deane show with the exception of one Monday each month where black teenagers filled the studios and were allowed to dance on live TV or watch in the studio. This was referred as ‘Black Monday’. WGZ-TV received numerous complaints from white parents after integrationist group challenged the network about their segregated policy by not only black but also white teens buying tickets to attend the show on a day reserved for only the black community. The Shows network received bomb and arson threat as well as hate mail over the possibility of more integrated broadcasts (Delmont, 2016). They decided to cancel the program all together. Waters wanted to give the film the happy ending that it deserved but didn’t get. He uses the song ‘you can’t stop the beat’ to show the issue of segregation had been resolved and both black and white dancers were allowed to dance together freely. However, Tracy is the one who not only fights to make Negro Day everyday but decides that the black people should march to rebel against Negro day being cancelled, portraying that white people have more power than black people. The film also portrays black people as lower class and white people as upper class. For example, an opening scene shows two black men shining the shoes of two white men. This scene represents black people merely used and seen as slaves to white people. The comparison between upper and lower class forces each class to be viewed as having its own distinct culture. Many people think that despite the efforts, the film lacks the portrayal of how black people fought for themselves. ( Word Press, 2016)
Racial segregation is the main issue in hairspray the musical. During the time of the 1960s the segregation between black people and white people was evident and enforced by law. These laws were called Jim Crow laws and were local laws that outlined the separate but equal treatment that in theory they thought had created. Black people from these enforced laws were legally required to attend separate schools, churches, use black only bathrooms and public transport. In 1962 the voter education project was founded with financial support of the federal government and was to increase voter registration in the African American community. Any person trying to promote against, abolish or modify the Jim Crow laws were often beaten or killed but with help of Martin Luther King Junior and the civil rights movement these laws were only affected open till 1965. (Hanson, 2011)
To conclude musicals contributed by challenging and reflecting racist attitudes to shed light on issues during that period of time in society. Hairspray challenges equality between races in the 1960s, a time where there were issues of discrimination on the basis of race. (Greenfield, 2012). Showboat tries to revolutionize the musical theatre industry with their ground breaking ideas to change the way black people are portrayed and thought of stereotypically in musicals. These musicals have contributed to the development of more musicals that raise or challenge issues in society.