From Broadway to the silver screen: Vocal black magic in musicals

The opening sequence of the 1979 film version of All That Jazz sets the scene with George Benson’s 1978 hit cover of “On Broadway.”     

Benson has continued to wow global audiences who probably have no memory of its link to All That Jazz, or to The Drifters. Here he is, performing the song, over 30 years after he first covered it.

Growing up with a stage actor for a father—a profession shared by many of my parents’ friends—it never occurred to me that most stage shows weren’t integrated, and so I never really thought about casting or who wrote or sang songs till I got a bit older.

Since I was taken to the theater pretty often, I have to admit that like most kids, I was pretty enthusiastic about musicals, while only a few of the dramas held my interest until I grew older. At home, we had quite a collection of show tunes, and over the years my own collection has grown. In keeping with my ongoing Sunday music series, I’d like to share some show tunes that were either part of a Black show, or performed and popularized by Black singers.

The year I was born, in 1947, Finian’s Rainbow debuted on Broadway, and I soon learned every song in the show. My parents and their leftist friends loved it: Not only was it integrated, it also addressed many of the political issues of the day.

Judith Mahoney Pasternakreviewed Finian’s Rainbow in 2009.

A “left-leaning Broadway musical” didn’t use to sound impossible, or even unlikely. George and Ira Gershwin and Morrie Ryskind penned the political satire Of Thee I Sing in 1931. In 1937, working for the Federal Theater Project, Marc Blitzstein put such a strong pro-union, anti-capitalism message into The Cradle Will Rock that the feds pulled the plug on it. And in 1947, with Finian’s Rainbow, E.Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy and Burton Lane put together a Broadway hit that combined socialist and anti-racist ideals, deliriously clever lyrics and a rollicking score of eminently singable tunes. The original 1947 production ran for 725 performances and gave to the U.S. songbook the standards “Look to the Rainbow,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near),” “If This Isn’t Love” and “Old Devil Moon.”

The rather complicated story line follows Irish immigrant Finian McLonergan, who has stolen a leprechaun’s pot of gold; the leprechaun, who has followed him to the Southern state of Missitucky to get the gold back; McLonergan’s daughter Sharon’s and her U.S. romance; Missitucky’s greedy, land-grabbing, bigoted U.S. senator; and the racially integrated community whose land the senator is trying to acquire. The community makes up the chorus, which was one of the first integrated choruses on Broadway.

The song I loved from Finian was “Necessity,” performed here by Terri White, in the 2009 New York’s City Center Encores! series. White was no stranger to necessity in her life.

What a difference a year makes. For three months in 2008, White, 61, a performer since her childhood in Palo Alto, Calif., was “so down I was doing chin-ups from the gutter,” she says. She had broken up with her longtime partner, and, as piano bars in New York City closed down, couldn’t find enough singing jobs to pay her rent. She lost her apartment.

Depressed, White – who in 1980 co-starred with Glenn Close and Jim Dale in Barnum and sang in Liza Minnelli’s Radio City Hall show – was too embarrassed to seek help from social services and only told a few friends of her situation. She crashed on a few friends’ couches, but mostly slept on a bench in New York City’s Washington Square Park.

We should all be grateful she auditioned for Finian’s Rainbow.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I heard Dinah Washington’s take on another oft-recorded song from Finian.

Dinah Washington was one of the greatest female vocalists to have sung jazz and popular music in the 20th century. Her style and delivery have been emulated by many that followed but few have had a voice to match the Divine Miss D. Her life was the stuff of movies, but even Hollywood shied away from trying to capture it on film as it was just too complicated. Fortunately, her immense talent on record has been well documented and she sounds as good today as she did when she made all those classic albums.

Born in Alabama, Ruth Lee Jones grew up in a staunch Baptist family in Chicago, singing and playing the piano in the choir at her local church and quickly becoming adept at gospel’s characteristic off-beat, syncopated rhythms and bent or sliding notes. At the age of fifteen, she performed “I Can’t Face The Music” in a local amateur competition hosted at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, won and was soon performing in Chicago’s nightclubs, such as Dave’s Rhumboogie and the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel.

She had a voice that was like the pipes of life. She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would’ve still understood every single syllable of every single word she sang.’ – Quincy Jones

  Her crisp delivery of “Look to the Rainbow” in 1955 is an absolute thing of beauty.

Over 20 years later, Al Jarreau—the consummate jazz, scat vocalist—would score a major hit with the album Look to the Rainbow and the song of the same name.

Another early Broadway production that was integrated and featured Black actors was Lost in the Stars.

A musical drama in two acts. Book and Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Based on Alan Paton’s novel, ‘Cry, The Beloved Country‘. Music by Kurt Weill.    

Lost In The Stars was Kurt Weill’s last score for Broadway. He personally considered it to be an opera and the critics agreed with him – it was performed by the New York City Opera in 1958. Set in South Africa, it tells the story of Absalom, the son of a Negro teacher, who is driven to the murder of a white man in a desperate bid to provide for his wife and child. Arrested and condemned to hang he is visited by his father, who departs in despair. Before his son is executed, the murdered man’s father comes to the preacher to offer compassion and understanding instead of hatred and retaliation. The powerful score includes “Who’ll Buy?”, “Trouble Man” and the title song.

Todd Duncan’s name is not well-known these days, however he was a major “first” in the opera world. From his 1998 obituary in The New York Times:

Todd Duncan, the baritone who created the role of Porgy in Gershwin’s ”Porgy and Bess” and was the first black singer to join the New York City Opera, died on Saturday at his home in Washington. He was 95.

Mr. Duncan, whose stage credits beyond Porgy include the Lord’s General in Vernon Duke’s ”Cabin in the Sky” and Stephen Kumalo in the first production of Kurt Weill’s ”Lost in the Stars,” was known for his elegant phrasing and burnished tone, as well as his dramatic persuasiveness. Those qualities won him his debut role at the New York City Opera in 1945, when he sang Tonio in a production of Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Although he had appeared in New York with black opera companies, starting with a 1934 production of Mascagni’s ”Cavalleria Rusticana,” with the Aeolian Opera, his City Opera debut made him the first black singer to perform opera with a white cast. That debut occurred 10 years before Marian Anderson made her celebrated debut at the Metropolitan Opera. By then he had also appeared at City Opera as Escamillo in Bizet’s ”Carmen” and in the title role of Verdi’s ”Rigoletto.”

We’re so lucky this recording exists.

The ”divine” Sarah Vaughn was no stranger to show tunes, and recorded many of them over her vocal career of 50 years. Here’s her version of “Lost in the Stars.”

Porgy and Bess is probably one of the most well-known and controversial Black shows to have ever been performed on stage and film, beginning with its first performance in 1935, and that controversy continues today. Michael Cooper, classical music and dance reporter for The New York Times wrote of this history in 2019.

It was one of those mythic New York nights: the Broadway premiere of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” in 1935.The starry opening drew Hollywood royalty, including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After the ovations died down, the A-listers headed to a glamorous after-party, where George Gershwin played excerpts from his score on the piano. By the next morning, though, the questions would begin. Those questions — about genre, about representation, about appropriation — have followed “Porgy” through more than eight decades of convoluted, sometimes troubling history, and remain salient as the Metropolitan Opera opens its season on Sept. 23 with a new production, its first performances of the work since 1990.

More urgently, is “Porgy” a sensitive portrayal of the lives and struggles of a segregated African-American community in Charleston,S. C.? (Maya Angelou, who as a young dancer performed in a touring production that brought it to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1955, later praised it as “great art” and “a human truth.”) Or does it perpetuate degrading stereotypes about black people, told in wince-inducing dialect? (Harry Belafonte turned down an offer to star in the film version because he found it “racially demeaning.”)

Is it a triumph of melting-pot American art, teaming up George and Ira Gershwin (the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants) with DuBose Heyward (the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family) and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy, to tell a uniquely African-American story? Or is it cultural appropriation? The fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience is the work of an all-white team has not been lost on black composers who have struggled to get their music heard. And has the Gershwins’ insistence that “Porgy” be performed only by black artists —originally aimed at keeping it from being done in blackface — helped generations of black singers by giving them the opportunity to perform on some of the world’s great stages? Or has it pigeonholed some of them, limiting the roles they are offered?

Or is the answer to all these questions “yes?”

I can’t answer those questions, except to say that I consider the music from Gershwin’s play to be some of the finest I have heard—most notably the recorded duets between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. I could listen to their version of “Summertime” non-stop, until winter comes …

… at which point I would just crank up “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

While looking for music to feature for this post today, I came across a clip of Nina Simone performing a live studio version which I had never encountered before of “I Loves You, Porgy,” with “Strawberry Woman” and “Crab Man” as the intro. 

Nina rearranges the order, singing the ‘Crab Man’ lines after those from ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’. Either way, she thus begins the piece as a sales girl, calling out her wares. Her voice is disengaged and distant, plaintive but pure, and tremulous on the word ‘vine’. She brings out an aspect of the songwriting, ‘just off de vine’ homophonous with ‘just off divine’, establishing from the outset a discrepancy between hopes and ideals and a bitter reality. The music slows and shifts as she repeats the phrase ‘devil crabs’. These crabs are a distraction from more pressing thoughts, but they evoke a memory, and now she swirls and segues from a recollection of her daddy to think of Porgy. ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ begins – ‘Porgy, don’t you know I love you / Don’t let him take me / Don’t let him handle me / And drive me oh so mad’ – and Nina’s voice at once deepens into a profound melancholy.

Nina had always considered herself a pianist. She began playing by ear at the age of three, and studied classical piano before applying to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Retaining the belief that her rejection had been made on the grounds of race, she only began singing when, playing the clubs of New York, she found that gigs and money were easier to come by if she committed to use her voice.

Her piano playing here is perfectly paced, steadily unfurling with the words of the song before an interlude. When she resumes singing, her voice is accompanied deliberately by the bass and percussion. Navigating blindly but resolutely – ‘But when he comes I know / I’m gonna have to go’ – her perseverance is rewarded by moments of calm.

The quality may not be great, but this performance is dazzling.

In this 1985 version, live at London’s Savoy Theatre, Simone tells the story of how she sang the one song she knew to get a gig.  

Another major Broadway musical with an all-Black cast was Carmen Jones, which opened in December 1943 and ran until February 1945; it relocated Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen  to World War II America. The Otto Preminger film version was released in 1955, starring Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pearl Bailey, and got very mixed reviews. Dandridge got an Oscar nomination, however, her voice was dubbed by Marilyn Horne, as was Belafonte’s, by LeVern Hutcherson.

Thankfully, they let Pearl Bailey sing.       

Pearl Bailey would go on to take Broadway by storm in her starring role in an all-Black production of Hello, Dolly!

She even received a special Tony award in 1968 for her performance.

Bailey passed on, at the age of 72, in August1990. John S. Wilson wrote her obituary for The New York Times.

”If I just sang a song,” Pearl Bailey once said when she had been drawn into an analysis of her performing style, ”it would mean nothing.” That is a debatable point. Her voice had a distinctively warm timbre and her natural vocal inflection was filled with fascinating colors and highlights.

Like Jelly Roll Morton, the great jazz pianist, who was fond of saying that he changed everything he played ”to Jelly Roll” (as, in truth, he did), everything Miss Bailey sang came out ”Pearlie Mae style.”This included the so-called risque songs that were a staple of her night club acts or the songs she sang in ”Hello, Dolly!” ”House of Flowers,” ”St.Louis Woman” and other Broadway musicals. In truth, Miss Bailey never ”just sang a song.” The stage Pearl Bailey was a close reflection of the private Pearl Bailey.

She was a trouper in the old theatrical sense. She had fierce pride in the level and consistency of her performance, no matter what the circumstances. She was disturbed to see this quality going out of show business, and she sometimes talked of forming a troupe – she still thought of it as a vaudeville act long after there were no more vaudeville theaters where it could play – through which she could instill the old discipline of trouping in promising young performers.

The Broadway song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the 1945 musical Carousel, got a new audience at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater in 1964. A newly formed singing group, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, shown here in a clip from DJ Murray the K’s It’s What’s Happening, Baby, which aired on CBS in 1965, brought the house down. 

For an amazing gospel rendition, no one can top Aretha Franklin, who recorded it for her 1972 Amazing Grace album.

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin went back to where it all started. Over two days at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church,she gave audiences – which included Clara Ward and Mick Jagger – a glimpse of what she learned in the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. The resulting live album, Amazing Grace, sold 2 million copies and won a Grammy. Executive producer Jerry Wexler, himself an atheist, said the album“relates to religious music in much the same way Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel relates to religious art. In terms of scope and depth, little else compares to its greatness.”Greatness, indeed.

Greatness, indeed.

Another major Black Broadway hit is the adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which gained fame as a white production before it was transformed into The Wiz.

The original production, starring Stephanie Mills, opened January 5, 1975 at the Majestic Theatre. The show ran 1,672 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The original production starred Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, and featured Tiger Haynes, Hinton Battle, Ted Ross, Andre de Shields, and Dee Dee Bridgewater in supporting roles. The show was revived in 1984 starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy once more.

“Home” became Mill’s signature song, but her Broadway career was a long one. 

Her voice abilities became evident early on and by the age of nine, she was mesmerizing crowds in her first Broadway musical “Maggie Flynn,” sharing the stage with co-stars Shirley Jones and the late Jack Cassidy. Other early credits included appearances in such pop culture classic, shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” “Wonderama,” “The Electric Company” and “String” (presented by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City). For six consecutive weeks, an eleven year old Stephanie won the famous Amateur Night at the renowned Apollo Theater and a first recording, “I Knew It Was Love” landed her the much coveted role of Dorothy in the Broadway musical “The Wiz” at the age of fifteen for 5 years, Stephanie Mills wowed packed houses with her amazing vocal gift.

This very ‘80s music video will bring you “Home.”

The film version of The Wiz famously starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The yellow brick theme, “Ease on Down the Road,” earned a Grammy nomination in 1979.

And 1981 would bring another major Black production to Broadway: Dreamgirls. The show told the story of a doo-wop girl group, the Dreams, who would rise to stardom and experience tragedy along the way.

The show’s hit, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” propelled Jennifer Holliday into the music history books.  

Ms. Holliday’s Broadway hit went on to become a number one R&B hit and a top 40 pop hit. The song was topping charts and blaring out of radios across the country, thanks, in part to New York DJ Frankie Crocker, who religiously played the song every morning on his radio show. By 1983, Jennifer Holliday was a household name, (and) “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was the song everyone was talking about. That year, she won the Grammy Award for Female R&B Vocal Performance, beating her lifelong idol, Aretha Franklin. “I figured there was no way that I could win,” Ms. Holliday said, laughing softly. “But that’s not what happened. They voted for me, and I was so shocked. I was just overwhelmed and happy, because I really did want to be a recording artist.”

Three years later, that feeling of shock and wonder hit again when she won a second Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance for “Come Sunday,” a Duke Ellington piece from her second solo album that honored Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer. Taking home Grammy number two was just as surreal as the first time around, Ms. Holliday remembered.“It was one of those beloved songs. I was only thinking about Mahalia Jackson, but it also carried its own story and nostalgia for people,” she said. “So, that meant a lot to me.”

Here she is at the 1982 Tony Awards, where she won the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, for her creation and portrayal of Effie.

There would be competition ahead for Holliday. Another Jennifer—Jennifer Hudson—was cast for the film version of Dreamgirls in 2006.

“Jennifer’s first professional role came with a local production of the musical Big River when she was nineteen. However, it was her exposure during the third season of TV’s American Idol in 2004 that introduced Jennifer Hudson into a nation duly impressed with her powerful soulfulness.  It took a few songs for Jennifer to make it at the pre-show auditions: “I flew to Atlanta, slept in the big Georgia Dome and the first time I had to sing while others were auditioning too.  They wanted an original tune but I didn’t have one so I did this kinda obscure song, “This Empty Place” that I first heard performed by Cissy Houston. Then, the judges wanted to hear something they knew so I did Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” and then “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child.] “The rest is history. After Idol, Jennifer auditioned for the part of Effie in Dreamgirls, beat out thousands of contenders for the coveted role and went on to win an Oscar.

Listen and see why Hudson took home the Oscar.

Now, I have friends who have engaged in endless debates about which Jennifer they prefer, which Jennifer sings this song best … and I’m tellin’ you, I’m not playing.

All I can say is I watched the two of them do it as a duet at the BET Awards, bringing the audience to their feet in a sustained standing ovation. Get ready for goosebumps.

Now, I’ve barely scratched the surface today; there are so many other stellar performances that had their genesis on stage or screen, so join me in the comments to hear more, and to add your favorites.

And while you are casting your vote for the songs you like, don’t forget to get out the vote in upcoming elections. 

We will win in 2020 if people can vote. By calling Democratic-leaning swing state voters every Tuesday or Thursday with Turnout2020, we can help them get absentee ballots for the November general election right now. Sign up here to participate in Turnout Tuesday, so that no one has to choose being their health and exercising their right to vote.

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