It’s Showtime! A Look into Musical Theater

Question # 2

Discuss the historical and socio-cultural significance of the productions A trip to Coontown and Shuffle Along. To what extent was the music of these shows of African American origin? Identify at least two African American stars who emerged from these productions and discuss the full extent of their influence on African American musical theater.

The musical comedy A Trip to Coontown was created in 1897 by Bob Cole and his partner Billy Johnson. It was characterized by up-tempo songs, comic dialogue within a modest narrative plot, and included talented performers. During the release of A Trip to Coontown, ragtime piano pieces and songs were emerging as well and it is recognized as African American origin. By 1896, ragtime was present on both White and Black stages.

Without access to the elaborate stage device and expensive accessories of full-blown operattas, the Black-cast shows of the early years of the century focused on the talents of individual star players, the energy of the dance with its complexities of movement, the spontaneous dialect humor, and the vocal power of the chorus.  Most of the actors did not wear blackface makeup, however, the shows’ plots and song lyrics can appear stereotypical to a modern viewer as a result of their extensive comedy and wordplay in dialogues. The shows made a strong impression on all viewer’s alert to racial politics which exemplifies the historical and socio-cultural significance. Black men and women were placed, through the vehicle of the stage, in a commanding expressive position night after night all over the country. Consequently, Aida Overton Walker, Bert Williams, and Ernest Hogan were some of the most famous African Americans of their day to name a few. They were viewed as race leaders, not merely entertainers which explains these Black star’s influence on African American musical theater. Furthermore,  their performances contradicted the recollections of tired and cheap minstrel shows from a past era.

Bert William’s initial success is from him being cakewalking comedian, his series of musical comedies, and his subsequent emergence as the only Black member of the Ziegfield Follies revue team. Williams was admired onstage and off by his White colleagues, as well as by artists outside of musicals. However, his fame came at a price. He always used blackface, and strongly identified with the archetype of the sad clown. His command of slow gesture and sadness as well as  his ability to bring an audience to sympathetic tears and laughter at the same time conveys his influence on African American musical theater. This also shows his personal effort and professional struggle within a racist society that often refused to treat him with dignity once his makeup was removed.

The Black musical comedy, Shuffle Along was released in 1921. It included talents such as singer-lyricist Noble Sissle and pianist-composer Eubie Black to name a few. The musical material varied from lyrical and romantic to upbeat and jazzy. It also included a mixture of dances and stage movements. The personalities of the stars were described as interesting. The incentive provided by Shuffle Along and the economic boom of the 1920s saw even more Black employment in theatricals. The new shows combined old-fashioned motifs such as plantation scenes and shuffling characters out of a minstrelsy with new updates such as urban scenes, themes of Black “uplift” and “improvement” which displays the historical and socio-cultural significance of this production.

Image result for music box theater shuffle along

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