Write about three musicals that we have studied that engage with the topic of race and ethnicity in America, drawing parallels and comparisons between the three and noting contrasts. The American Musical has often been used as a medium in which uncomfortable issues were boldly addressed. This has been the case for the issue of race and ethnicity in America, in particular the following musicals: Show Boat, Memphis, and West Side Story. The first two musicals addressed the issue of the integration of African Americans into American culture, with Show Boat, set in the early 1900s, focusing on the difficulty of true racial blending in America, and with Memphis, set in the 1950s, focusing on the still difficult task of desegregating black and whites in America despite the later time period.
West Side Story also focuses on race issues during the 1950s, but between Puerto Ricans and Whites. The three musicals all attempt to achieve a peaceful blend of races, but are similar in that they all fall short or fail. All three musicals make use of failed marriage tropes, possibly implying the failure of attempting to integrate races in America, at least during that time period. However, the reasons for which the interracial couples fail in each musical are different, which makes each musical unique. Also, the musical numbers serve to further emphasize the attempts at solving the problem of racial discrimination in America.
Show Boat focuses on the impossibility of racial integration in America during the early 1900’s. The powerful song “Ol’ Man River” is sung by Joe, a black dock worker. The song is sung in the “black” dialect, with the pronunciation of potato as “’taters,” and saying them as “’em.” In this number, Joe reflects on the indifference of others, in particular whites, on the plight of him and his fellow black workers. This reveals the injustice towards blacks, but also the resigned apathy the blacks are unfortunately feeling. In addition, Show Boat follows the life of couple Steve Baker and Julie La Verne and lovers Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia Hawks. Surprisingly, Julie is well acquainted with African song and dance, and is able to sing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a “black” song, even though she is white. This song, with its imitation of 12-bar blues in 32-bar form, is taught to the young white Magnolia, in an attempt to open up the black culture to whites. However, teaching the song and dance to Magnolia – in particular the “shimmy” – is awkward and embarrassing, as Magnolia “black” dance moves look like a caricature in comparison to the black people’s natural movements.
Thus it could be thought that whites cannot act like blacks, but it also suggests that through music whites and blacks can get along. It is revealed later in the musical that Julie is actually a mulatto, meaning she is half black and half white. This becomes a source of contention for the rest of the musical. In Act II, the marriage between Julie and Steve and Gaylord and Magnolia both fall apart. Julie, the mulatto, secretly gives up her job so that Magnolia can find work as a singer, and later Magnolia is reunited with Gaylord. The resolution of Magnolia’s relationship and the neglect of Julia’s, as well as the disregard towards how Julia finds how to make a living after she gives up her job for Magnolia represents the indifference of whites towards blacks as related at the beginning of the musical in “Ol’ Man River.” Show Boat allows a happy ending for the white couple Magnolia and Gaylord, but overlooks mulatto Julia’s plight, reflecting the attitude of the time period that happiness and assimilation was not yet possible for blacks.
Memphis is set about 40 years after Show Boat and addresses the problem of race integration still prevalent in America, through the failed relationship/marriage trope between African American Felicia and white Huey Calhoun. It could be said that Huey represents white Memphis, while Felicia represents black music. Huey’s outspoken love for Felicia results to him and her being physically hurt, and leads to the soulful number “Say Prayer,” sung by Felicia’s African American friend Gator. The song is sung like a Gospel number, with Gator singing “Amen,” and asking help from Jesus, and also with the fellow black friends chiming in after Gator with “Say a prayer,” while Gator beseeches, “that change is a comin’.” Here, the Blacks are seeking help from a higher power to solve this woeful problem between the mixing of whites and blacks. However, in the second act, there is hope for change, with the number “Change Don’t Come Easy,” sung by Huey’s mother, who goes “black,” after being moved by an African American church choir.
The song lyrics and rhythm are quite uncharacteristic for reserved white Mrs. Calhoun, but she embraces the African culture of joyous singing, chant, and dance, and also joins in with Felicia’s brother and friends in a shimmy. Unfortunately, the change does not come quickly enough for Huey and Felicia’s romance, which never has the chance to come to fruition. Felicia ends up marrying a black man, although she does find fame as a singer, while Huey ends up washed up and alone. Although, there is a glimmer of hope for happiness for Huey in the finale when he sings a last song with Felicia, the separation is still there, nudging at the still ever present difficulty of integration of blacks and whites in America.
West Side Story displays the failed relationship/marriage trope between Puerto Rican Maria and White Tony. The tensions between the two racial groups (Sharks and Jets) are high, and it does not help either that the Puerto Ricans do not even feel like they belong in America in the first place. This is related in the number “America,” where the idealistic Puerto Rican women are shot down by the pessimistic and realistic Puerto Rican men. The song is sung as a seis de controversia, a Spanish style of rhythm, which is an improvised argument of exchanged taunts with sly insults slipped in every so often. The banter between the Sharks and their girlfriends reveal the difficulties that Puerto Ricans face living in California. When the girls say “Life is all right in America,” the boys counter with “If you’re a white in America.”
The tension and the injustice are apparent, and Puerto Ricans are unfairly unaccepted by the whites in New York. However, two star-crossed lovers still find each other, but unfortunately find it impossible for them to find a place where they can live happily. This is seen in the number “Somewhere,” which implies tragedy, as if there is no path to this “somewhere.” There is also an unresolved tritone at the ending of the song, suggesting the insolvability of this problem for Maria and Tony. The end of the musical with the death of both Tony and Maria reveal the difficulty and near impossibility of integration of blacks and whites in America, because it can lead to death.
The American Musical has been often used medium to address the issue of race and ethnicity in America. An issue that is of most common concern throughout American history was the integration of different races – African Americans and Puerto Ricans – into the white culture of the United States. This issue was the subject of several musicals, including the three discussed in this paper: Show Boat, Memphis, and West Side Story. The three musicals show parallels through their use of failed marriage tropes to explain the bigger picture of integration of races failing to succeed in America, but contrast in their telling of the story and reasons for failure. Despite this, the three musicals handled the race issues of the time in the musicals as best as white playwrights were able to envision in the history of the American musical.