The following is a guest post from Ben West, writer, director, producer, performer, and musical theatre historian. He is currently a curator for the forthcoming Museum of Broadway in Times Square, New York City. He is also currently writing and developing several stage projects including The Show Time! Trilogy, three new documentary musicals about the evolution of the American musical and its reflection of American consciousness. West’s directing credits include Unsung Carolyn Leigh for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook. He has worked in various capacities on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regionally. He is the founder of UnsungMusicalsCo. and a 2017 recipient of Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award.
Ben will be presenting on “Diversity and the Birth of Broadway: Early Black Authors of the American Musical” in the Montpelier Room of the Library of Congress Madison Building on Wednesday, February 19 at 7:00pm. The event is free and open to the public, so come join the conversation if you are in the area!
His scintillating, stylish, and emotionally seductive jazz standards have been recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Wynton Marsalis. His popular rag- and jazz-infused musicals have appeared on Broadway, in vaudeville, and throughout the regions. His impact on both the American musical stage and the American popular song is immense. His name is almost completely forgotten.
A seasoned author of sensational, sharp-tongued, and impassioned lyrics, whose versatility on the theatrical stage led him to dabble in directing, dialogue, and delineations, Henry Creamer is one of the many African American authors of the early American musical who were instrumental in the form’s development yet remain routinely overlooked.
Between 1897 and 1910, and, separately, between 1921 and 1935, working against a backdrop of racism, segregation, and profound prejudice, set to the sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz, and spanning the spectrum from burlesque comedy to revue, the black musical theatre – and black-authored musicals, in particular – enjoyed two prominent periods of tremendous prosperity, one on either side of the turbulent, transformative teens.
The former years were defined largely by the pioneering productions of African American performers Bob Cole, Ernest Hogan, and Williams and Walker, all of whom disappeared from the scene – in one way or another – by 1910. The latter years, having been launched by the 1921 song-and-dance sensation Shuffle Along, were characterized most substantially by steamy song-and-dance revues, fast-paced floor shows of the prescriptive jungle variety, and the emergence of such Jazz Age giants as Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.
Alongside the likes of Shuffle Along creators Flourney Miller and Aubrey Lyles and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s secret musical weapon Will Vodery, Henry Creamer was one of the few individuals to successfully span both eras and their intervening years. Of this select crew’s sizable output, his is also arguably the most enduring.
Born in Richmond, Virginia and raised in New York City, Creamer made his theatrical debut in 1907 co-authoring Ernest Hogan’s unexpected final musical, The Oyster Man. Following the flattering reception of his first footlights foray, the budding talent formed a brief and largely limited partnership with the show’s co-composer, Will Vodery, his first of three such associations, while separately collaborating with African American melodists like Bert Williams, Tom Lemonier, and Ford Dabney, with whom he delivered the seemingly naughty number “You Can Learn the Hootchie Kootchie (for a Dollar and Thirty Cents),” though the titillating title is more satisfying than the song itself. However, as the 1910s rolled in, black musicals rolled out.
In 1913, Henry Creamer and Alex Rogers (“Nobody”) responded by forming the Negro Players. “The Negro’s talent for music and dramatic expression is now unquestioned,” explained Will Marion Cook, one of the turn of the century’s most celebrated black composers and an early associate of the new outfit. “The Negro Players hope to aid in the development and perfection of this talent.” Cook, in fact, co-authored the Players’ inaugural production, The Traitor, but left the company following the musical’s hasty and difficult demise. Creamer and Rogers, however, would go on to pen and premiere a promising new piece for their Players just two months later.
“Tonight will be the last chance to see The Old Man’s Boy,” the Philadelphia Tribune reported in May 1913 of the musical’s extended stay in the City of Brotherly Love. “No new play that has ever been staged in this city has been fortunate enough to receive the unanimous endorsement of the local papers daily and weekly. The Old Man’s Boy is a clean, creditable, cultured performance. Everybody who can should see it.” Unfortunately, the Negro Players disbanded shortly thereafter.
In 1915, lost in the fog of a chilly theatrical landscape, Creamer would pen lyrics for Darkydom. However, like most black musicals of this intermittent era, the promising curiosity found itself floundering.
While onstage activity was decidedly dampened during the deceptively dark days of the nineteen-teens, the distinctly vibrant noise emanating off stage was rapidly developing into a thunderous revolution, with the emergence of blues and jazz opening doors for black musicians. Creamer became one of the first, most prominent, and commercially successful African American songwriters to capitalize on the theatrical possibilities of this new vernacular.
In 1917, the veteran lyricist launched a newly formed partnership – his most fruitful – with hot young composer Turner Layton. Over the next six years, the prolific pair turned out hit Broadway interpolations, three musicals, two vaudeville revues, and a string of jazz standards, including the perennial favorites “After You’ve Gone” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” subtitled “A Southern Song without a Mammy, a Mule, or a Moon.” The latter, an American Songbook classic, was initially featured in the pair’s pulsating 1922 Broadway revue Strut Miss Lizzie, which borrowed its title from their 1921 song smash of the same name. Despite positively enthusiastic – and, in some cases, rave – reviews, the musical, marred by lawsuits and financial woes, would lead to the demise of their partnership.
Creamer would go on to write with a handful of other composers, including, once again, Will Vodery, while forming a brief partnership with celebrated stride pianist Jimmy Johnson, his third and final such association. The Creamer and Johnson catalogue, if not as animated, diverse, or vital as that of Creamer and Layton, is rich in character and melody, with “If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)” being perhaps their most popular air. Creamer ultimately capped his considerable career with a smattering of unproduced musicals and a futile, last-minute assignment doctoring the ill-fated 1929 Broadway bomb Deep Harlem, described by one critic as “a sermon and a lecture with dancing attached.”
“The time is not yet here when the white man, and hardly anybody else, is going to voluntarily walk into a theatre to be educated to the trials and tribulations of the race when they are promised something in lighter vein,” the Amsterdam News assessed of the well-intentioned, more serious-minded black history musical that was loosely based on My People (1917). Such was the time in the segregated saga of the American musical, an art form that has – from its blackface beginnings in the decades surrounding the Civil War – reflected, affected, and informed the consciousness of its country, with Henry Creamer being one of the many early African American artists whose cultural heritage and collective sonic contributions shaped its very foundation.