Inquiring Minds: Celebrating Black Musical Theater

Ben West in the Music Division’s reading room. Photo by David Rice.

For going on a decade now, theater historian Ben West has been making regular trips from his home in New York City to the Library of Congress. His mission? To cull through unpublished manuscripts, personal papers of Broadway authors, copyright drama submissions and more to tell the story of the American musical.

Last September, West’s documentary musical “Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical” premiered at the Theatre at Saint Peter’s in New York. Through live music, performance and historical narrative, it explores the evolution of musicals from the mid-1800s through 1999 alongside social and artistic changes. It is the first installment in West’s “Show Time! Trilogy.”

This coming September, the second installment, “45 Minutes from Coontown,” will cover the same period for black musical theater, celebrating the contributions of African-American authors who influenced American popular song while navigating an environment of racial prejudice. The installment’s title references the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans: “A Trip to Coontown” (1897) by Bob Cole and Billy Johnson.

Next year, West plans the third and final installment, “68 Ways to Go,” about the history of women writers and musical theater. Here West answers a few questions about black musical theater and his finds at the Library.

This promotional flyer for the “The Shoo-Fly Regiment” features a photo of musical theater pioneer Bob Cole (left). He wrote the 1906 musical with James Weldon Johnson and Rosamond Johnson (right).

Tell us about the origins of black musical theater.
The roots of the American musical – and, accordingly, the subset of black musical theater – reach back to the circuses, dime museums and minstrel shows of the early 1800s. In the years surrounding the Civil War, the musical form continued to grow through self-described “beautiful, operatic, fairy extravaganzas,” while the rapid rise of vaudeville in the second half of the 19th century proved vital to the development of the American musical stage and its early pioneers. And though black artists had been frisking in the footlights for decades, it was not until the 1890s that they fully broke into this burgeoning form, their entrance – or, perhaps, admittance – largely the confluence of two key factors: the birth of ragtime and the growth industry of all-black touring troupes. Both, indeed, contributed heavily to the creation and subsequent success of Cole and Johnson’s “A Trip to Coontown.” That there even exists a subset of the American musical specifically identified or characterized as black musical theater speaks directly to our collective social, cultural and political sensibilities, for this uniquely American art form is inextricably linked to – and irreversibly reflective of – the consciousness of its country, a theme that runs through all three installments of “The Show Time! Trilogy.”

What are some notable productions?
Throughout the history of the black musical theater, there have been numerous notable black-authored entries: “The Wiz” and “Noise/Funk” among the more prominent. “Darkydom” is one of the more obscure. Headlined by the young team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, the 1915 musical comedy emerged as a shining ray of hope during the dark days of the nineteen-teens. “Miller and Lyles have an important mission to perform for the stage and for their race,” the New York Age reported. “It is believed that they will take advantage of this golden opportunity and make good.” But “Darkydom” disappeared before reaching Broadway. Unfortunately, Miller and Lyles did not make good. At least, not in 1915. They would return in 1921 with a little show called “Shuffle Along,” leading a resurgence of black musicals on Broadway.

The sheet music cover for “Alabama Stomp,” written by black songwriters Henry Creamer and Jimmy Johnson and interpolated into “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.”

How did black musical theater evolve to the present?
Black musical theater – and black-authored musicals, in particular – had its share of ups and (mostly) downs over the 20th century, all of which are detailed and explored more fully in “45 Minutes from Coontown.” To provide a rough overview, though, the legitimate black musical theater enjoyed 13 years of pronounced prominence following its launch in 1897, with more than a dozen black authors writing for the stage, mostly in the form of (early) story-driven musical comedies. However, between 1911 and 1920, it entered a period of decline. Down but not out, the proliferation of jazz and other social phenomena would result in a tremendous black musical resurgence between 1921 and 1935, with more than 20 black authors writing for the stage, mostly in the form of prescriptive song-and-dance revues. Following 1935, the black musical theater – and black-authored musicals, in particular – became especially scarce, despite the deceptive upswing of the post-civil rights 1970s. Beyond racism and opportunity, the novelty of black revues had worn off, and the advancing musical form found a conspicuous lack of black dramatists working in the field. The 20th century ended – as does “45 Minutes from Coontown” – with the emergence of writer-director George C. Wolfe. Between 1992 and 1999, with such seminal works as “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Noise/Funk,” the visionary black dramatist brought new possibilities to the black musical stage, carrying it into a new millennium.

Which Library of Congress collections did you consult for “45 Minutes from Coontown”?
The majority of my “Coontown” research at the Library was done in the Copyright Office, the Manuscript Division and the Music Division, though I also ventured into the Recorded Sound Research Center and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The script deposited to register the copyright for “A Trip to Coontown.” It was date-stamped by the Copyright Office on Sept. 27, 1899. Photo by Shawn Miller

What were your most interesting discoveries?
While I happen to find nearly every research discovery interesting, one particularly thrilling find was Bob Cole’s spectacular script for “The Shoo-Fly Regiment” (1906), which perfectly illustrates how Cole so skillfully elevated and advanced the black musical stage, and why I refer to him as the father of black musical theater.

How would you describe the research value of the Library’s collections?
The Library’s collections are invaluable, simply put. The breadth and substance of its holdings are tremendous. And while “45 Minutes from Coontown” does not – and necessarily cannot – include every individual item of research found here and elsewhere, all of it collectively has been used to paint what I hope will be an exhilarating and comprehensive portrait of an American art form and its extraordinary, often overlooked architects.

“45 Minutes from Coontown” will premiere at the Theatre at Saint Peter’s on Sept. 12–15, 2019.

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