Throughout history, human society has found a variety of ways to incorporate the ideas and beliefs of the day into artistic media outlets. Writings have been influenced by astrology, paintings by values, and novels by politics. One of these artistic outlets, musical theatre, has never been any exception. Musical theatre, born of the union of opera and straight plays, is unique in its form in that it enlists several different factions of art to portray a rich and multi-dimensional story. While musical storylines can be as different and widespread as any other artistic genre, one thing remains a constant: The tale told will always reflect some aspect of the time in which the musical was written, and insight into social evolution can indeed be gained from viewing a series of progressive musical plays.

One social issue that has been approached time and again in musical theatre is that of multiculturalism and racial conflict. Musical plays have often acted as showcases for the racial views of the time at which they were written. The moment an ethnic character enters into a musical, their every aspect can give an idea of how that particular race or ethnicity was viewed at the time of the creation of said character. Costume, dialogue, effect on storyline, treatment by other characters, and any other angles taken can all be reflective of the racial views of the era. As racial and ethnocentric problems are a societal constant, they have also been a constant throughout the history of musical theatre storylines, and as our racial and ethnic prejudices have changed and evolved throughout time, so has the treatment of races and ethnicities within musical theatre. Following the treatment of foreign culture and characters throughout the history of the Western musical can provide one with an illustration of the evolution of racial and ethnocentric bias throughout the twentieth century, and how people of said races and ethnicities were treated within that time period.

The Western musical, a play that integrates song, music, and dance into its plotline, is considered to be a rather modern phenomenon. Ted Sennett claims that the roots of musical theatre begin in 1866, when producer William Wheatley was in the process of staging a musical play, The Black Crook, and enlisted some ballet dancers to join the process (10). The three art forms merged and the concept of musical theatre was the product. After this, it took many years for the genre to evolve into what we consider a musical today. Many song and dance shows began opening, but a large number of them qualified not as musicals, but as revues, burlesques, satires, and operettas. However, by the early 1900s, large-scale musical productions were beginning to gain popularity across the Western world, and a composer Sennett argues is “the most influential-and indisputably one of the greatest” (11), Jerome Kern, came into recognition, soon to be followed by greats such as George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein, and Cole Porter.

By the 20s, musical theatre was beginning to capture the attention of audiences around the world. However, every musical that had yet been produced consisted of an entirely Caucasian cast. Any African-American characters were low-class, often cooks or farm workers, and almost always portrayed as stupid. “Blackface” acting, in which white men would rub burnt cork or charcoal on their faces and mock African-American culture was made popular by Al Jolson, a performer of the day. True African-American performers were rarely used in plays. At this time, anti-Black sentiments were rampant. African-American people had no civil rights, and were often considered sub-human. Many Caucasians viewed the Black community as being on Earth solely to serve and entertain them. It was often not considered that Black people were just as likely to feel love, pain, anger, sadness, or any other array of the emotions that musical plotlines were built around. No serious stories were written with integral Black characters, and any pain or love portrayed as being experienced by a Black character was clearly intended to be comedic. Musicals up until the early 1920s reflected the clearly racist views of Caucasian society towards the Black community as being inferior on a number of different levels.

In 1921, however, musical theatre history was changed with the opening of Shuffle Along; the first show completely created and put on by African-Americans (Sheward 16). Shuffle Along was a huge gamble for investors, who didn’t think that it would be a hit amongst the primarily Caucasian audience-goers. However, when opening night came, this proved to be a moot point, when the house was filled with viewers of all races. Due to the great success of Shuffle Along, theatre seat-segregation was abolished and for the first time on Broadway, Caucasians and African-Americans sat together to enjoy a musical. The world was in the early stages of realization that racial bigotry was an abhorrent practice, and though it would be years to come before any vast social change occurred, the musical theatre community was already slightly adjusting itself to fit with the changing times.

In 1927, the aforementioned great composers Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II broke set social boundaries with their new musical, Show Boat, which revolutionized the musical theatre world. According to David Sheward, before Show Boat, “Broadway was mainly a place to forget your troubles and have a good time…frivolity was still king”(13). When Show Boat hit the scene, it not only forced audiences to consider more serious issues, but also tried the unprecedented: explored storylines dealing with the bigotry facing a Mulatto woman and her White husband, and the pain that she experiences subsequent to his leaving her. Never before had a musical cared to examine such controversial subjects. Another strong African-American character portrayed in Show Boat was Joe, singer of the famous ballad “Old Man River”. Joe, while still illustrating the stereotype of a lazy Black worker common in musicals of the day, steps out of character a bit to give advice to the primary characters on life and love, proving to be a wise and intelligent man. For the first time in musical theatre, Show Boat was portraying African-American characters not as satirical cut out figures, with the purpose of entertaining Caucasians, but as real people with real issues. This new approach prompted theatregoers to look differently on racial diversity in entertainment than they had been doing so previously.

Of course, the African-American community is by no means the only one that has faced prejudice in the twentieth century, as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, based on a James Michener novel of the same name. Written in 1949, shortly after the end of World War II, it is set in the South Seas during the war. The storyline is that a romance between an American nurse and French planter is threatened by her misgivings over his dead first wife, a Polynesian woman, and his biracial children. A subplot involves a young army man falling in love with a woman on the island, but breaking things off because he feels their romance could never be accepted in Western society. In the end, although the army man dies shortly after ending his romance, the nurse overcomes her fears of a relationship with the planter being judged based on his past, and we are to assume they go off to lead a happy life together. Although set against a background of happy songs and gleeful atmosphere, South Pacific was courageous enough to deal with some very real issues facing people of the times: racial prejudice, miscegenation, and the bigotry facing those involved in biracial relationships.

With the happenings of the Black civil rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s, a new world was beginning in terms of racial acceptance. For the first time since the abolishment of slavery, African-American people were forcing the world to acknowledge them as equal human beings, and worthy of respect. Soon other minority groups began to rightfully demand respect themselves. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated at the time, the world began experiencing a “transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” Though these changing times were met with some resistance, for the most part the world was happy to move into a more culturally accepting era. Musicals began to move beyond examining racial issues within their contexts, into promotion of racial harmony. Examples of this include The King and I, another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, and West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The King and I tells the true story of Anna Leonowens, who traveled to what was then Siam to educate the King’s many children. During the course of the story, Anna and the King of Siam manage to overcome a variety of strenuous cultural differences to come to an understanding and mutual respect for each other. Meanwhile, in West Side Story, a modern Romeo and Juliet update, rivalry between a Caucasian and a Puerto Rican gang leads to a number of deaths, including that of Tony, a Caucasian in love with a Puerto Rican girl. As Tony’s lover cries over his dead body, she gives a tear-filled speech on the pain that is caused by racial conflict. Both of these musicals encouraged theatre fans to abandon previous feelings of bigotry and embrace a multicultural existence.

In modern times, we like to think that we are living in a world devoid of racism. Lawrence Blum states, “Apart from a small number of avowed white supremacists, most Americans wish very much to avoid being called ‘racist’” (1). While it remains clear that racism is a very real, major problem today, our reputable media is usually careful not to perpetuate it. Musical theatre of today has moved away from its racist background, and is making an effort to make up for it whenever possible. Racist lyrics and slurs have been removed or altered in revivals of old plays. Plays are being composed with casts of a high percentage of ethnic performers, such as The Lion King. African-American performers encounter far less problems landing serious, non-satirical, non-stereotypical roles in a large number of musicals. Changes are made to librettos, and sometimes producers are even reluctant to revive classics, for fear of offensive racial material. The musical theatre world has grown to be as ashamed of its treatment of racial diversity as most politicians are of segregation, the general public of slavery, and other anti-racial atrocities committed throughout time. The theatre community is making a devout attempt to salve the situation of times past, even cover it up to a point. But perhaps it is inadvisable to forget and smooth over a mottled past: the racial slurs and stereotypes prevalent in musicals past can provide us with a glimpse into our past, reminding us of a horror that should never be repeated. For while racial abhorrence is certainly not something to be proud of, global social growth is. And by studying the evolution of racial treatment in musical theatre, one can track a growth of multiculturalism, cultivated slowly but surely throughout 100 years of theatre history.

Works Cited
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail in Response to Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen” Landmarks: A Process Reader. Ed. Roberta Birks et al. Scarborough, ON: Prentice, 1998. 99-113.

Blum, Lawrence. “I’m Not a Racist, But…”: The Moral Quandary of Race. New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sennett, Ted. Song and Dance: The Musicals of Broadway. New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1998.

Sheward, David. It’s a Hit! The Back Stage Book of Longest-Running Broadway Shows 1884 to the Present. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1994.

Bibliography
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail in Response to Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen” Landmarks: A Process Reader. Ed. Roberta Birks et al. Scarborough, ON: Prentice, 1998. 99-113.

Blum, Lawrence. “I’m Not a Racist, But…”: The Moral Quandary of Race. New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Montagu, Ashley. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. 5th ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1974.

Mordden, Ethan. Open A New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Morley, Sheridan. Spread a Little Happiness: The First Hundred Years of the Broadway Musical. Toledo: Artes Graficas, 1987.

Sennett, Ted. Song and Dance: The Musicals of Broadway. New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1998.

Sheward, David. It’s a Hit! The Back Stage Book of Longest-Running Broadway Shows 1884 to the Present. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1994.

Shipman, Pat. The Evolution of Racism: Human Differences and the Use and Abuse of Science. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

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