Yuriko in The King and I

May 15, 2007

One of my favorite Broadway production numbers is “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” from The King and I. It’s the long, lavish ballet in which children and courtiers entertain the king of Thailand with a home-grown performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Devised by Jerome Robbins, it uses the stylized dance-drama of Southeast Asia to tell the story of Topsy and Eliza and “King” Simon Legree—keeping intact its anti-slavery slant to prick the conscience of the real king.

I like it for a lot of reasons—the unembarrassed Eastern sonorities in Richard Rodgers’ music, the sly humor of Oscar Hammerstein’s narration, the adroit appropriation of Asian movement, and the wit of Robbins’ cross-cultural translation of an all-American subject. But mostly I like how its musical-within-a-musical form winkingly mimics the way Rodgers and Hammerstein saw The King and I, and many of their other shows: as sneaky, easy-to-digest lessons about tolerance.

If you could ask every person attending a Broadway musical tonight why he or she is in the audience, not one would answer, “Because musicals have been a force for unity and understanding among the races.” We don’t go to musicals to be edified. But, like the king watching “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” we usually don’t realize we’re being asked to think until it’s too late, and a lesson about what’s right has already taken root in our brains. The 1970 musical Purlie wickedly lampooned a southern segregationist. “While we were laughing, we were changing,” said the daughter of its co-author, Ossie Davis, during a post-performance discussion at the City Center “Encores” series in New York.

This is not to say that Broadway musicals have always, or even frequently, attempted to address issues of race in a serious way. The overwhelming majority are embarrassingly—if sometimes deliciously—empty-headed. And Broadway, like America, has plenty to be ashamed of when it comes to its treatment of minorities. From the early days, when black entertainers could not work unless they were willing to parody their own identities by donning blackface, to not so long ago, when Asian performers had to picket in Times Square to extract a promise that the role of a Eurasian character in Miss Saigon would not be reserved for whites only, musicals have reflected and perpetuated the racial rifts and injustices of American society.  

And not just backstage. Through the decades, American musicals, created even today mostly by white artists and attended still mostly by white audiences, have blithely traded in insulting racial stereotypes and even epithets. Most of us are aware that 19th-century minstrel shows helped create and propagate the racist image of the silly, shiftless, shuffling black man. But how many of us realize that the patriotic “gunboat” musicals popular at the turn of the century regularly put wily, double-dealing Japanese villains before the public? (Ugly examples of both are documented by John Bush Jones in his social history of the musical, Our Musicals, Ourselves.) We may smugly say that musicals have come a long way since those bad old days, but then we come face-to-face with the cringe-inducing Asian (well, pseudo-Asian) slave-traders in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Such sins notwithstanding, the musical stage can also be credited—paradoxically—with providing a consistent drumbeat against the racism, subtle and open, prevailing in American life. Until the 1960s, when rock musicians and filmmakers started catching up, musical theater was by far the most willing of our popular arts to decry racial prejudice and espouse social justice. Sometimes it was for the sake of high ideals, and sometimes it was for the sake of high box office. But by historical standards, Broadway has been an outpost of concern.

By 1903, black performers were already finding work on Broadway in lively, all-black entertainments like In Dahomey. Florenz Ziegfeld hired the great Bert Williams for the otherwise all-white Follies of 1910, inviting the audience to commiserate with a black man’s misery in Williams’s signature rendition of “Me and My Shadow.” And Broadway has been both promoting and taking advantage of black stars every since. The 1954 Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers is a good example. It was meant as a showcase for the talents of Pearl Bailey. In the process, it made Diahann Carroll a star, and Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, Arthur Mitchell, Geoffrey Holder, Donald McKayle and Frederick O’Neal were in the cast.

The downside was that this show about a Caribbean bordello was written, produced, directed, and choreographed by white men, and more than 30 years had passed since the first Broadway show created entirely by blacks, Shuffle Along, in 1921. But it wasn’t until the ’70s that black artists reclaimed their right to put on their own shows with traditional musicals like Purlie and The Wiz, edgy experiments like Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and inspirational anthologies like The Me Nobody Knows.

For a long time, when a Broadway musical expressed discomfort with racism, it was because whites felt the need to deal with it. Show Boat brought serious racial issues, and a fully integrated cast, to Broadway in 1927, followed by shows like Bloomer Girl, Finian’s Rainbow and Lost in the Stars. In 1933, Ethel Waters stunned theatergoers with “Suppertime,” a ballad that was explicitly linked to the death of a lynching victim, in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer. On it goes, a parade of breakthroughs that leads to the dark analysis of the roots of prejudice in South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to Be Taught” (1949) to Hair’s trio of horny white women singing “Black boys are delicious” (1968) to today’s matter-of-fact interracial couples in Rent, Avenue Q, Hairspray, Good Vibrations, and Movin’ Out.

And progress is visible in other ways as well. For all its “Getting to Know You” message of cross-cultural understanding, the original King and I had only a handful of Asians—including the Martha Graham dancer Yuriko and young Baayork Lee (who later would be in the original cast of A Chorus Line). By the time the show was revived in 1996, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” was being danced entirely by Asians. And I’d like to think that the child performers in that production, now in their teens, will have no trouble finding work in musicals if they want it. Maybe even musicals that tell Asian stories from Asian points of view. We’re not done yet with that “Getting to Know You” stuff.

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for Newsday and The New York Times.