Unless you were under a rock, we hope you were tuned into the livestream video broadcast of the unforgettable and star-studded Broadway For Black Lives Matter benefit concert that took place Monday night, Aug. 1, in the Roone Arledge Auditorium at Columbia University’s Alfred Lerner Hall. The night guaranteed a bountiful feast of headlines and hashtags. Undoubtedly, this was due to introductions from Tony-winning Broadway royalty Cynthia Ervio, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Jeanine Tesori and Alex Sharp, for instance, or performances from the 2016 cast of the Encores! Off-Center concert series revival of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways, nine-time Grammy Award nominee Ledisi, Tony Award winner Billy Porter, and four-time Grammy Award winner India.Arie and Broadway Inspirational Voices (with original arrangements by Tony nominee Michael McElroy). However, the big take away from the night was the show’s themes of inclusion, cross cultural pollination and intersectionality.
This could be more evident in many of the night’s performances. Whether it was the rhythmic spoken word of Daniel J. Watts addressing “Columbusing” and cultural appropriation, or the poetry of Daniel Beaty, which challenged social justice warriors to rise up while name-checking victims of police brutality—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice and the thousands who have now become “future ancestors”—, speakers had one thing in mind: To bring spark a fire and conjure incentive to keep protesting and progressing.
However revolutions can’t be won alone and as Frank Roberts, a professor at New York University emphasized, “Black Lives Matter is an intersectional movement.” It is also an artistic moment and one of the most powerful arts is song. Be it anthems like Crystal Monee Hall’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Ledisi’s interpretation of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Billy Porter’s startling cover of Tony Bennet’s “Take The Moment” or India.Arie’s own “Breathe,” audiences noticed that protests come in many sounds and colors. American musical theatre also has its fair share of protest songs and civil rights anthems, they just may not be as well known, so here’s a list of the best that graced stages on Broadway and off.
“The Scottsboro Boys” (The Scottsboro Boys, 2010)
Kander & Ebb have an arsenal of protest songs, but they are probably not as scathing as the eponymous musical number in The Scottsboro Boys that ends the show on a rather anticlimax note. Nudged to do a cakewalk by The Interlocutor, the host of a minstrel show, the men wipe off their make-up in defiance and walk off stage. What’s even more remarkable is the inclusion of a young lady (until now thought to be a mute character) is revealed to be Rosa Parks. When asked to move to the back of the bus to make room for a white passenger, she refuses promptly. You know what happens next. A close second would be: “Go Back Home.”
“Listen!” (from The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, 2000)
A musical womanist exposé on racism and sexism, Kirsten Childs’s breakthrough The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, an ode to self-acceptance and independence, is encapsulated in the blistering defiance of the 11 o’clock number, “Listen!” Through accommodating and pleasing everyone, the smiling and docile Viveca Stanton speaks up.
“I’m Here” (from The Color Purple, 2005)
Five years after LaChanze originated the role of Viveca Stanton at off-Broadway’s Playwright’s Horizons, she originated the role of Celie in the Broadway production of The Color Purple and took home a Tony award for Best Actress (Her musical catalogue is enviable!). Naturally, Cythnia Erivo had some big shoes to fill in the Broadway revival, especially on the 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here.” The song captures a black woman, considered ugly and insignificant, feeling a deep love for herself for the first time.
“Back To Before” (Ragtime, 1998)
While Audra McDonald made history with the original Broadway production of Ragtime, becoming a three-time Tony Award winner by age 28 (she would win three more), the musical is also remembered for its astonishing score, particularly Marin Mazie’s second act number “Back To Before.” The song is about a bourgeoisie white woman coming to terms with the times and choosing to change with it, understanding that she cannot sit idle while others—in this case, segregated black people—are suffering.
“I Am What I Am” (La Cage aux Folles, 1983)
Jerry Herman is one of the most underrated songwriters for this reason: “I Am What I Am,” Albin’s act-one finale. Written by two openly gay men, La Cage aux Folles is revolutionary in many ways, but with this protest song meets torch ballad, a gay man declares that he is proud of who he is and refuses to change for anyone, even his partner. Keep in mind, the first AIDS/HIV cases in the U.S. were reported as early as 1981.
“Keys/It’s Alright” (Passing Strange, 2008)
Stew’s Tony-winning Künstlerroman rock ‘n roll masterpiece about a young African American’s artistic journey of self-discovery has a salvo of protest songs and gut-wrenching anthems, but none of them match the sonic blast of “Keys/It’s Alright.” About a black man finding friends and a home away from home, the song serves as an anthem for lost souls looking for community.
“Being Good Isn’t Enough” (Hallelujah, Baby!; 1966)
Hallelujah, Baby!, the show that made Leslie Uggams an A-list theater diva, is best remembered for the act-one finale, “Being Good…” which was re-recorded by another diva, Barbara Streisand. Following an ambitious young black woman who seeks stardom, through song, she decides to work twice as hard as everyone else to make her dreams come true. Sound familiar?
“Seasons of Love” (Rent, 1996)
The refrain “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” in Jonathan Larson’s Rent asks the listeners what the appropriate way to calculate the value of a year in human life is. Given the subject matter and the fact that it is sung by artists in the show, “Seasons of Love” rings closer to home in a post-BLM world.
“Defying Gravity” (Wicked, 2003)
The biggest song in Broadway’s biggest musical, “Defying Gravity” finds the singer realizing she must do what’s best for her and that she must not let anyone hold her down.
“We Gotta Get out of This Place” (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, 2014)
By the time Beautiful: The Carole King Musical made it to Broadway, “We Got To Get Out Of This Place” was already registered in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list. Nevertheless, while the song is about the Vietnam War, it feels very appropriate for what has been happening Flint, MI; Baton Rouge, LA; Baltimore, MD; and Ferguson, MO.
“Zombie” (Fela!, 2010)
Typical of jukebox musicals, touchstones like Fela Kuti’s 1976 Afrobeat smash “Zombie” were well known to black music listeners before it came to Broadway. In Fela!, the rough-and-rowdy revue inspired by the musician, the song—which described and attacked the methods of the Nigerian military—feels somewhat adjacent to methods taken in police criminalization cases.
“What’s Going On?” (Motown: The Musical, 2013)
In Motown, Marvin Gaye’s seminal smash hit “What’s Going On?” gets performed after a medley of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” creating a kind of catharsis that reminds us that work still needs to be done.
“My Shot” (Hamilton, 2015)
One must admit, the first twenty minutes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton are perhaps unparalleled by any other musical and that’s because of the relentless wordplay of “My Shot.” In the song, the protagonist electrifies other young revolutionaries with his rhetoric, but also speaks about his disillusionment with the U.K. while dreaming of laying down his lives for a better future. This is basically the musical theatre equivalent of the Black Lives Matter anthem.
“Run and Tell That” (Hairspray, 2002)
From “Welcome to the 60’s” and “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” in act one to “Without Love,” “I Know Where I’ve Been,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in the second act, the musical score of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Hairspray is chock-full of protest songs and civil rights anthems galore. But none are as multifaceted as “Run and Tell That.” The R&B number is a black pride hymn, and speaks to the veracities related with being marginalized by a white society.
“Hair” (Hair, 1968)
Sharing the same name as the musical, very few songs are as catchy or as memorable as “Hair”—yeah, that includes favorites like “Aquarius,” “Easy To Be Hard,” “Good Morning Starshine” and even “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).” All of the show’s themes come together—race, class, nudity and sexual freedom, pacifism and environmentalism—and all of it through is the texture, length, color and style of hair. It’s an intersectional anthem and one that embraces natural hair!
“The Song of Purple Summer” (from Spring Awakening, 2006)
The kids are not all right in Spring Awakening, but “the seeds are already being planted” for an emerging liberal minded, progressive generation and the puritanical viewpoints of adults will one day be a thing of the past.
“Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day” (The Wiz, 1975)
There are so many great songs in Charlie Smalls’ The Wiz and it’s hard to choose which one, given the emotional complexity in songs like “Believe in Yourself” and “Home,” or the just keep swimming feeling of “Ease on Down the Road.” But “Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day” is a celebration song, a dance of freedom underscored by African rhythms and gospel horns. Freedom never sounded so exhilarating.