You have heard of Dreamgirls, Wicked and In The Heights, but there are always a few musicals you leave off of your “My Top Ten Musicals of All Time” list. But fret no more, Broadway Black is here to give you five great musicals you, and probably the rest of the world, have overlooked.
SHOULD. HAVE. WON. EVERY. SINGLE. TONY. FOR. WHICH. THEY. WERE. NOMINATED. Okay, I’m good now. This show opened on Broadway in 2004. It’s 2015, why hasn’t there been a revival in the works for the Great White Way? Its score combines spirituals, blues, Motown, classical music, Jewish klezmer, and folk music all in one. What other musical does that, and does so effortlessly? If only in 2004 I had been smart enough to become the theatre nerd I am today, I would have begged my mom to take me to New York City to see Tonya Pinkins, Chuck Cooper and Anika Noni Rose in this show. The musical is set in 1963 New Orleans during the American civil rights movement. Caroline works as a maid for a Jewish family, where she is allowed to keep the pocket change she finds while doing laundry. This becomes a point of pride and even crisis for the maid, who cannot cope with greater changes in her life and the growing civil rights movement.
If I had been around in the 1940s I would have been all up in the theatre to see Carmen Jones. Oscar Hammerstein’s take on Bizet’s Opera Carmen featured an all-Black cast set in the South during the World War II era. This time, Carmen is a worker in a parachute factory; Don Jose is now Don, an army corporal; Micaela is now Cindy Lou, Joe’s lover; and Escamillo is Husky Miller, a boxer. When the show was first conceived, they had trouble finding suitable actors for it because back then, Black singers were discouraged (or practically barred) from becoming opera singers. To make up for this they plucked people from all kinds of non-acting positions–film scraper, cop, etc.
She Loves Me
Nearly every character in this show is white, and it takes place in Europe. However, WHO CARES? This show has some amazing music. Its tender, hilarious, and entrancing “A Romantic Atmosphere” is one of the most exciting, funny production numbers to ever exist. Also I can see Audra McDonald absolutely KILLING it singing Vanilla Ice Cream. Look up the song if you don’t know. Seriously, Audra would slay that role as Amalia. The plot has been seen before: it revolves around shop employees Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash who, despite being consistently at odds with each other at work, are unaware that each is the other’s secret pen pal met through a lonely-hearts ad.
St. Louis Woman
If you loved Porgy and Bess, you’ll love St. Louis Woman too. It has an Encores cast recording from 1998, but if you search high and low you’ll find the OBC as well. Starring the Nicholas Brothers, Pearl Bailey, and Ruby Hill, St. Louis Woman tells the story of Della Green who falls for Li’l Augie, a jockey with a winning streak, though she’s already the woman of Biglow Brown, a saloon owner. Brown is eventually killed, but he puts a curse on Li’l Augie that ends the streak and Della’s affection for the jockey.
Once on This Island
It’s a French fairy tale about a young island girl from Haiti, Ti Moune, who falls in love with the mulatto son (Daniel) of a wealthy landowner. When he’s injured, she makes a pact with the gods that it’s going to be her life for his. He survives and is grateful, but rejects her love (RUDE!). The gods, as a reward for her sacrifice and disappointment, grant her eternal life by turning her into a tree. It reminds me a lot of The Tempest, a little Romeo and Juliet, and even some Little Mermaid just shaken up a bit and a lot more music.
We could probably list more overlooked shows, but I’m curious to know about some shows YOU think are overlooked! Sound off below.
Isaiah Johnson Joins Reading of “Reginald”
Isaiah Johnson is set to lead a reading of Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire, which is based on the life of Reginald F. Lewis.
In case you missed this day in history class, Reginald F. Lewis is the first Black billionaire. He rose to affluence in the ’80s and died at the age of 50. Over his 5 decades of life, Reginald attended Harvard Law and achieved his status through his corporate acquisitions. He left his legacy through philanthropic efforts, donating millions of dollars each year to a number of institutions, from homeless shelters to neighborhood churches.
Written by Kevin Ray Johnson, Reginald takes us on a journey from childhood to billionaire status, and the struggles of life he faced in between. Isaiah joins the cast as Reginald F. Lewis. Lora Nicolas will play Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the wife of Reginald F. Lewis. The rest of the cast includes: Jessica Frances Dukes (Booty Candy at Playwrights Horizons), Savannah Frazier (Amazing Grace), Troy Hopper, Matt Welsh, Joe Sergio, Emily Bailey and Timothy-Michael Chastain.
The reading will be held Monday August 15th, 7:00 pm at Shetler Studios Penthouse 2.
Johnson is currently wondering how a man can do good, when all he knows is bad, under “Celie’s Curse” as Mister in the Tony-winning best revival of The Color Purple. Before The Color Purple, Johnson was seen in The Winter’s Tale, Peter and The Starcatcher, and The Merchant of Venice as Prince of Morocco.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe Sets Broadway Return
The longest-running musical revue to play Broadway is making a triumphant return this summer as producers announced the comeback of hit revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
The Jukebox musical that garnered Tony award nominations for Broadway Black stars Victor Trent Cook, B.J. Crosby and the illustrious Brenda Braxton, is set for a revival, with rehearsals starting around the end of May, according to an Actors Equity audition posting. Previews are scheduled for July 19
Original producers Richard Frankel, Steve Baruch, Tom Viertel and Marc Routh are joining original cast Tony-nominated director Jerry Zaks to revive the hit revue. The show features songs by writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, including fan favorites “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “I’m a Woman,” and “On Broadway.” After Midnight Choreographer,Warren Carlyle, has also signed on, along with musical direction by Sonny Paladino.
Smokey Joe’s opened on Broadway March 2, 1995 and despite harsh critical reviews, had substantial commercial success. The revue earned five Tony award nominations in 1995 including Best Featured Actress, Best Featured Actor, Best Choreography, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Musical. It also won the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 1996. After a nearly five year run and a bevy of special appearances, including Gloria Gaynor, Lou Rawls and Gladys Knight, the show closed Jan of 2000 after 2,036 performances.
In 2014, nearly 20 years after the first performance, Braxton directed original cast members for reunion concert performance of Smokey Joe’s at the famed Feinstein’s/ 54 Below.
“There’s so much history with us,” Braxton shared with the second of two sold-out crowds. “We weren’t just [together] on Broadway, we were a family.”
Production has yet to announce a venue.
Be sure to check in with Broadway Black for all the latest information!
NBC Takes Us Behind The Yellow Brick Road With The Making of The Wiz Live!
I think it’s safe to say, we’re all sitting on the edge of our seats with popcorn and Sour Patch Kids, waiting for the Dec 3 arrival of NBC’s The Wiz Live! We may not be able to reach new levels of obsession over Shanice Williams and the rest of the star studded and immensely talented cast, but let me tell you something: there is more good news! Ne-Yo, I mean NBC, is taking us on a backstage, all-access look into the teamwork it takes to ease on down the road through “The Making of The Wiz Live!” on November 25 from 8-9pm EST.
Retrospective: The Color Purple
We’re ready for Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks, and Cynthia Erivo to hit the stage in the upcoming revival of The Color Purple on November 10. But to truly appreciate the latest Broadway run of this endearing musical, we must take a retrospective look at the original Broadway production.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and the Steven Spielberg-directed motion picture, the musical opened at The Broadway Theatre on December 1, 2005 with a stellar cast that starred LaChanze as “Celie,” Brandon Victor Dixon as “Harpo,” Felicia P. Fields as “Sofia,” Renée Elise Goldsberry as “Nettie,” Kingsley Leggs as “Mister,” Krisha Marcano as “Squeak,” and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes as “Shug Avery.”
It was directed by Gary Griffin, produced by Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, with choreography by Donald Byrd and musical direction by Linda Twine. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother) penned the book for the show, with music and lyrics by celebrated songwriters and artists Stephen Bray, Allee Wills, and Brenda Russell.
Oprah, who was nominated for an Oscar as “Sofia” in the movie version, came on as an investor and producer before the show’s November 1 preview to expand its box office potential. Once she signed on, the show was titled Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple. At that time, her self-titled television show was a ratings juggernaut, averaging 9 million viewers per year. With Oprah’s name on the marquee, it was almost guaranteed a built-in audience.
Despite Oprah’s star power, the show opened to mixed reviews from the critics. Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote,
Time doesn’t just fly in the exhaustingly eventful world of The Color Purple, it threatens to break the sound barrier. In faithfully adapting Ms. Walker’s incident-crammed 1982 Pulitzer Prizewinner about Southern black women finding their inner warriors, the show’s creators have fashioned a bright, shiny and muscular storytelling machine that is, above all, built for speed. Watching this beat-the-clock production summons the frustrations of riding through a picturesque stretch of country in a supertrain like the TGV. Thanks to the cast’s spirited way with a song, Purple strikes some sparks during its long and winding journey. But it takes a concentration and leisure the show lacks to fan sparks into a steady flame.
From Michael Feingold of The Village Voice, “The feelings that The Color Purple may arouse in you don’t disguise the fact that they’ve been gotten in a comparatively crude and unimaginative manner. The disheartening lack of quality in the material dilutes the quality of feeling with which it’s being put over and makes the meanings behind it look questionable as well.”
On a more complimentary note, Roma Torre of NY1 wrote, “As art, the show is flawed, but it’s also so full of heart, the flaws don’t seem to matter. The Color Purple sings to the soul.”
And Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press added “Fans of Walker’s novel most likely will not be disappointed in this reverent stage retelling and will embrace it heartily as a live souvenir of the original. Others may crave a little more theatrical excitement.”
However, when it came time for the Tony Awards nominations, the production received tremendous love and recognition, receiving 11 nominations, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. LaChanze won the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
Elisabeth Withers-Mendes and the Broadway cast of THE COLOR PURPLE perform “Push Da Button” (written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) on Late Show with David Letterman. Airdate: November 16, 2005
The Color Purple closed on February 24, 2008, after 30 previews and 910 regular performances. The Broadway production recouped its $11 million investment within its first year on Broadway. After its three-year Broadway run, the show went on to three national tours and several regional productions. In 2013, John Doyle directed the London production at the Meiner Chocolate Factory starring Erivo as “Celie.” It is this production that is inspiring the Broadway revival this fall.
For tickets to this upcoming production, click HERE.
Appropriation, Not Appreciation: The History of Blackface
Theatre is an integral part of society. It is often the mirror that society uses to see its reflection. Oftentimes, that reflection isn’t always pretty. Though this art form has allowed many Black theatre artists to express the cultural ills of society, there is at least one blemish on the face of theatre: blackface.
Blackface is when actors, often not of color, paint their faces darker in order to portray a Black person. This form of makeup was used in “minstrelsy,” in which white actors and actresses would pretend to be Black people or, more accurately, how they believed Black people to be. Blackface and minstrelsy gained popularity in the nineteenth century by way of actor Thomas D. Rice, who toured the U.S. with the stage name, “Daddy Jim Crow.” His name later became associated with the racism and segregation that was affecting individuals in the South. A video of one of his performances can be seen here.
Today, if blackface is used, it is the subject of controversy; however, that doesn’t mean that it is completely eradicated. In the 2008 movie, “Tropic Thunder,” white actor Robert Downey, Jr. portrays a Black man. The comedy was lauded for its hilarity and Downey was even nominated for an Academy Award. That leads one to wonder if a Black man playing the same role would have received the same critical acclaim. Additionally, actress and dancer, Julianne Hough, dressed as “Orange Is The New Black’s” Crazy Eyes (portrayed by the fabulous Uzo Aduba) as a Halloween costume. The actress later apologized on Twitter for her blunder, but the damage was already done.
Eric Lott at PBS writes that the legacy of blackface is the stereotypes set in the past are still affecting the mindset of white people’s perception of Black people today. This phenomenon affects Black people because the tropes associated with blackface are harmful. Appropriation of someone’s color or culture is not a form of appreciation. Appreciation is not embodying someone and taking over; it is respecting them for who they are.
A recreation of the Jump Jim Crow refrain the way it was performed by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice (1808-60). This clip is so short I repeated it three times so you can get a good look. This is the only clip I’ve ever found that shows a performer singing and dancing the actual tune.
The Negro Ensemble Company Blazed Trails for Black Theatre
The success of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun sparked a number of changes in 1959. Hansberry became the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway and though the play took home four Tony Award nominations and was named best play of 1959 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, opportunities for black actors, writers, and directors in the landscape of American theatre were still few and far between.
Douglas Turner Ward, who understudied Sidney Poitier in the historical play and took over the role as Walter Lee Younger in the show’s national tour, penned a manifesto published in The New York Times that addressed the color barriers in American theatre. His opinion piece, titled “American Theatre: For Whites Only,” published just a few years after the Supreme Court declared segregation of public schools and thereby public facilities, unconstitutional– shed light on the non-existent space for African-American theatre artists.
A theatre evolving not out of negative need, but positive potential; better equipped to employ existing talents and spur the development of future ones. A theatre whose justification is not the gap it fills, but the achievement it aspires towards— no less high than any other comparable theatre company of present or past world fame.
The article caught the attention of W. McNeil Lowery at the Ford Foundation, who encouraged Ward to apply for a grant to build the type of theatre he described in his essay. Ward was awarded $434,000 and along with fellow castmate, Robert Hook and theatre manager Gerald Krone the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) was founded in the summer of 1967. Ward and other black writers would now have a platform to showcase their work and young black actors, like the ones who worked with Hooks, were given the opportunity to play complex characters with depth and originality.
The inaugural season opened with Peter Weiss’ Song of the Lusitanian Bogey in 1968. NEC received criticism on both sides of the racial spectrum. Members of the black community were critical of the NEC employing white staff, playwrights, and funders. NEC continued to serve the African-American theatre talent pool, mentoring the likes of Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Delroy Lindo and Angela Bassett.
Even though the NEC broke barriers for many Black actors, directors and playwrights, box-office sales suffered. In the 1972-73 season the resident company was disbanded and major cut-backs of training programs, salaries and productions occurred. The NEC would now only produce one play a year.
In 1974 NEC made its Broadway debut with The River Niger by Joseph Walker that took home a Tony Award for Best Play and went on a national tour. The success of The River Niger bought the NEC more time, and in 1981 A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller won the Outer Critics’ Circle Best Off-Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was later turned into a three-time Academy Award nominated movie.
Ward left the company in 2002. O.L. Duke took his place from 2002-2004 and now Charles Weldon stands at the helm of the historic landmark. Weldon expanded the theatre’s education programs by offering video production, commercial theatre management, producing, advertising and public school training. NEC currently offers workshops in basic acting, actors intensive, playwriting, dance and movement and more.
In January 2015 Weldon was quoted in an article published in Newsweek explaining why he continues to persevere and maintain the company. For him, it means that he gets “to hold on to history. A history that was great. A history that so many great people were a part of.”