For the next few weeks, Clef Notes is talking about music and ethnicity. Going along with this theme, this week let’s look at how ethnicity plays a role in various 20th-century Broadway musicals including Show Boat and West Side Story.
During the 20th century, some composers sought to touch on American racial tensions in their work. One example of this can be found in the first authentic musical written, Show Boat (1927). Written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat deals with serious social issues such as racism and miscegenation, both major issues during the time this musical was written.
When Show Boat first premiered, it resulted in a shock from the audience following the opening lines “'Niggers all work on the Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play.” This shock continued throughout the musical as it also openly mentioned mixed-race marriages, which was still illegal in many states during the 1920s. African Americans were treated in a sympathetic way rather the comic, foolish way of the black-faced minstrels, something quite new for the time.
Below you can watch a clip of the famous “Ol’ Man River” from a later version of Show Boat. Notice that at this point, the word “Nigger” is exchanged for “Darkie.” This was also changed to “Colored folk” in additional versions of the musical.
Join me next time as we look at racial tensions found in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.