At the end of October, I heard a fascinating segment on NPR about the revival of the musical Finian’s Rainbow. The revival has been 60 years in coming, and a big part of the reason why is because of what many consider to be an outdated view of racism. This got me thinking about the many musicals which deal with racial prejudice. This post is the first in a two-part series which will discuss musicals which deal with racism. In this article, I’ll be discussing Finian’s Rainbow, Showboat, South Pacific, and the King and I.
Finian McLonergan and his daughter, Sharon, immigrate from Ireland to the mythical state of Missitucky, USA. Finian has brought with him a crock of gold to plant in the soil near Fort Knox so it will grow and make him wealthy. However, the leprechaun, Og, follows Finian to America because he wants his gold back. While in America, Finian and Sharon are introduced to the horrors of racism. Accidentally, because she is standing over the magically buried crock, Sharon transforms a racist senator into a black man. In the end, however, all is well. The Senator learns tolerance, Sharon falls in love with a landowner and even Og finds love in the landowner’s mute sister.
According to the aforementioned segment on NPR, one of the biggest problems in the musical is the way it dealt with changing the white senator into a black man. In the original production, a white actor would don blackface to make the transformation. The NAACP and others did not like this. In the current production, a white actor plays the senator before the change, and a black actor plays the senator after the change.
In the NPR segment, the musical’s producer, David Richenthal says, “A lot of people were under the impression that the show was in favor of racism,” Richenthal says. “There has been a terrible and bizarre misunderstanding about the politics underlying Finian’s Rainbow.”
There is not one particular pivotal song in this musical, but please enjoy the YouTube video below from the latest revival.
Showboat premiered in 1927, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and music by Jerome Kern. The following synopsis is from stageagent.com:
The story spans about 40 years, beginning aboard the showboat Cotton Blossom in the 1880s, on the Mississippi River near Natchez, Mississippi. A riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, comes aboard and is taken with Magnolia, an aspiring performer and daughter of the ship’s captain and owner, “Cap’n Andy”. Magnolia (aka Nolie) is smitten with Ravenal as well, and seeks advice from Joe, one of the workers aboard the boat. A local sheriff comes aboard and insists that the show not go on, because the star of the show, Julie, is a mulatto woman married to a white man, and local laws prohibit miscegenation. With the star gone, Magnolia and Gaylord fill in. He later confesses his love for her and proposes.
Years later, Gaylord and Magnolia are married and living in Chicago with their daughter, Kim. Gaylord’s gambling debts get out of control, and they are living in a very poor apartment. Frank and Ellie, two actors on the boat visit, where Magnolia finds that Gaylord has left her. Frank and Ellie seek a singing job for Magnolia at the same club where they are working for New Year’s. Unbeknownst to Magnolia, Julie, now a drunk showgirl left by her husband, hears Magnolia’s song, the same song she taught her years ago Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, and abandons her position so that Magnolia can fill it.
On New Year’s Eve, Andy comes to the club, unaware of Magnolia’s troubles, only to discover her nearly being booed off stage. He rallies the crowd to her defense in a grand sing-along of an old song After the Ball. Magnolia becomes a great musical star.
Years later, when Kim is now a star of the stage, Gaylord returns for a happy reunion with Magnolia.
The musical’s treatment of racial issues was ground-breaking in many ways. It was one of the first musicals to have a mixed race cast, and the first musical to use black and white choruses, even though they were separated. In addition, the show’s opening scene remains controversial, even today, because of its original use of a derogatory N-word. The curtains open to reveal a scene on the dock, with black stevedores piling bales of hay. The stevedores then sing, “N-word all work on de Mississippi.” In later productions, the N-word has been changed to “colored folks”, “darkies”, or even “we”. Finally, it was revolutionary in its storylines. Here is a quote from a post by ziggystarduzt entitled, “The Evolution of Racial Bias in Modern Musical Theater”:
[The musical] 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… 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.
The song “Old Man River”, sung by a minor character named Joe, describes how even though black people have been emancipated for over 30 years, they still have to struggle for their rights against the white man.
South Pacific opened on April 7, 1949, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. The following synopsis is from stageagent.com:
On a South Pacific island during World War II, a U.S. Navy nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, falls in love with a middle-aged French plantation owner, Emile de Becque. Meanwhile, the restless sailors of the Navy, led by the entrepreneurial seabee Luther Billis, are lamenting on the absence of women or combat to relieve their boredom, when Lieutenant Joe Cable of the U.S. Marine Corps arrives on the island to take part in a dangerous spy mission that might help turn the tide of the war against the Japanese. As only officers can sign out boats, Billis notices this opportunity to be able to get over to the mysterious and valuable island of Bali Ha’i, and convinces Cable to accompany him. On Bali Ha’i, Bloody Mary, the native souvenir dealer, introduces him to her daughter, Liat, and the two fall in love. The two couples prosper, and proposals of marriage are made; however, Nellie is shocked to discover that Emile has mixed-race children from an earlier relationship, and Cable refuses to marry Liat due to her race, infuriating Mary. Dejected and with nothing to lose, Emile and Cable agree to go on their dangerous mission, successfully sending reports on enemy action. ‘Operation Alligator’ gets underway, and the previously idle sailors, including the reluctant Luther Billis, are sent into battle. Unfortunately, Cable is killed during the mission, and Emile narrowly escapes a similar fate to return home to the now-understanding Nellie and his children.
South Pacific includes two storylines which explore racial prejudice. One story line is that of Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, in which Nellie initially cannot accept Emile’s previous marriage to a Polynesian woman and his mixed-race children. The other is between Joe Cable and Liat. Even though he is falling in love with her, he feels that he cannot marry her because she is not white. However, he realizes that prejudice against people of a different color is something that children learn at an early age. Cable’s song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, expresses his frustration and exemplifies one of the core themes of the musical.
The King and I
The King and I opened on March 29, 1951, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. The following synopsis is from stageagent.com:
Mrs. Anna Leonowens, a widow from Wales, arrives in Bangkok with her young son to teach English to the children of the royal household. She threatens to leave when the house she was promised in the contract is not available, but is dissuaded from doing so when the King presents to her his children. The King eventually honors his promise of a suitable house. He also very much wishes to absorb western knowledge, but is sometimes conflicted over how to reconcile western ways with his own.
Meanwhile, a new (literate) slave for the king named Tuptim — a gift from the king of Burma — befriends “Mrs. Anna” and borrows her copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She transforms it into the Siamese ballet Small House of Uncle Thomas, which is presented amidst the welcoming of emissaries from Great Britain, making it clear she is unhappy being a slave to the King. After the performance, when she tries to escape with her lover Lun Tha, she is apprehended. Anna prevents the King from beating her, causing him to run away in shame and hide away for weeks. In the play, it is strongly implied that both Tuptim and Lun Tha are put to death, but in the 1956 film version of The King and I, it is suggested that only Lun Tha is killed.
Anna, thinking that she can no longer be of any use, is just about to leave Siam when she is told that the King is dying. She decides to stay in order to help his young son, Crown Prince Chulalongkorn — her favorite pupil — to rule his people.
It must be mentioned that this musical intertwines the topics of racism, classism, sexism, polygamy versus monogamy, and slavery. The love story between Anna and the King is subtle. There is no point in the musical where they explicitly express their feelings for each other. For these two characters, a romantic relationship is nearly impossible due to differences in race, class, and cultural ideals of marriage. The closest that Anna and the King come to expressing their feelings is during the song, “Shall We Dance”. During this song, the characters become physically close to each other and are able to relate as people, rather than as a king and a teacher.
The character of Tuptim addresses the topic of slavery when she adapts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to become a ballet entitled The Small House of Uncle Tom. The original novel is about African American slavery by white Americans. Tuptim’s adaptation is less about racism than it is about sexism, since she is protesting the virtual enslavement of women through polygamy.
In part two of this post, I will discuss the musicals West Side Story, Hairspray, and Ragtime.
Source: “We’ll Find a New Way of Living:” Racism in Showboat, South Pacific, The King and I and West Side Story by Linda M. Florjancic. Thesis for Master of Music Degree, University of Akron, Music-History & Literature, 2005.