NEW AMERICAN DRAMA | In the years following the Second World War, as Broadway continued to narrow in both definition and terrain, the legitimate stage blazed with creativity, audacity, and invention, spurred on, in part, by the emergence of an extraordinary new American drama. Tennessee Williams, for instance, burst onto the scene with a string of instant classics, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo, and A Streetcar Named Desire; Arthur Miller turned out such stunning masterworks as All My Sons, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, and A View from the Bridge; and William Inge etched three potent portraits of small town America in Bus Stop, Come Back, Little Sheba, and Picnic. Eugene O’Neill, meanwhile, returned to Broadway with The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, each of which had been penned years prior to its premiere. Elsewhere, on a glittering Rialto, audiences flocked to a coterie ofnew comedies by the likes of Mary Chase, Garson Kanin, Norman Krasna, and John Van Druten, a prolific author and director perhaps best-known for I Am a Camera.
BLACK STORIES | On August 30, 1944, the American Negro Theatre production of Anna Lucasta moved from the basement of the New York Public Library at 135th Street in Harlem to the Mansfield Theatre on Broadway, playing a total of 957 performances on the Main Stem. Initially penned by Philip Yordan as a Polish-American story with white characters, the landmark play was part of a small but steady stream of nonmusical offerings that brought Black talent to Broadway in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Othello, in particular, found Paul Robeson turning in a towering performance as the title character opposite Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer, while Lysistrata marked Sidney Poitier’s Broadway debut. The majority, however, were new works that told Black stories specifically focused on the subject of race. Among the most prominent were Dorothy Heyward’s Set My People Free, Louis Peterson’s Take a Giant Step, Maxine Wood’s On Whitman Avenue, and Arnaud D'Usseau and James Gow’s Deep Are the Roots, a long-running hit that followed the southern homecoming of an African-American army lieutenant at the end of World War II. It was directed by Elia Kazan, who famously cofounded the Actors Studio in 1947.
In the 1930s and 40s, Canada Lee emerged as one of the leading Black actors on the Broadway stage. A boxer, bandleader, violinist, and restauranteur, the multifaceted figure was starred or featured in numerous Main Stem productions, including Macbeth (1936), Mamba’s Daughters (1939), Native Son (1941), Anna Lucasta (1944), The Tempest (1945), and On Whitman Avenue (1946), which he also produced. For his sinister turn in the 17th century melodrama The Duchess of Malfi (1946), he even wore white makeup, appearing alongside an otherwise white company. “This role in Malfi was no stunt,” Lee explained. “It’s the kind of thing that startles people, but I want to set a precedent. For an ambitious Negro actor, until now, what parts have there been? Native Son, if he’s young enough; Othello, if he’s old enough; and Emperor Jones, if he likes that sort of part. It’s true that the scope of Negro actors has expanded greatly in recent years, but there is still a sharp segregation. Just as it was an important step for Ira Aldridge first and then Paul Robeson to dare play Othello with a white cast, so I’d like to think my doing this part will have beneficial results for the theatre and for all Negro actors.”
In 1948, Charles Gaynor’s Lend an Ear took Broadway by storm, running a total of 460 performances and fostering the careers of original cast members Carol Channing, Gene Nelson, and Robert Scheerer. The snappy new revue also provided an incredible platform for its emerging choreographer Gower Champion, who turned out a torrent of clever routines. A prime product of America’s burgeoning regional theatre scene, the intimate fresh-talent showcase was comprised almost entirely of songs and sketches that Gaynor had written between 1936 and 1947 for original revues at the Civic Theatre of Indianapolis and the Pittsburgh Playhouse. One of the most notable was Hold Your Hats, a peppy two-piano entertainment that premiered on April 19, 1938 with choreography by 25-year-old Gene Kelly. The highlight of Lend an Ear was “The Gladiola Girl,” a bright and genuine burlesque of what is commonly imagined to have been 1920s musical comedy. (There was really more than one brand.) Ending the first act on a terrific high, the extended sketch purported to be a surprise presentation of the fictitious 1925 smash as performed by one of the show’s seven original touring companies – specifically, the one that had gotten lost on the road. The Jazz Age jamboree even included two songs that Gaynor had written in the 1920s while he was a student at Dartmouth.
FOLKTALES AND MUSICAL PLAYS | In the middle of the 20th century, following decades of artistic advancements, the American musical emerged as a distinct and mature art form. Its calculated experiments in theatrical storytelling were collectively marked by an excellence in craft, construction, and composition and written in a wide range of styles. The success of Oklahoma!, in particular, led to a flood of folktales like Bloomer Girl (1944), Brigadoon (1947), and Ballet Ballads (1948), a dance-driven affair comprised of three distinct episodes and virtually no dialogue. Street Scene (1947), Regina (1949), and My Fair Lady (1956), meanwhile, were among the new musical plays to unfold in strikingly different surrounds.
MUSICAL COMEDY | By the late 1940s, the mature, modern methods of theatrical storytelling and the creative characteristics of vaudeville and burlesque began to intermingle in a vital new class of musical comedy. Though Are You with It? (1945), Top Banana (1951), and Wonderful Town (1953) proved to be among the principal exponents of the progressive movement, one blazing theatrical masterpiece emerged as the present period’s most defining product. Fashioned by first-class craftsmen Abe Burrows, Frank Loesser, and George S. Kaufman from a story and characters by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls (1950) remains one of the most beloved American musicals in the canon. The high-style original production was designed by Alvin Colt and Jo Mielziner and choreographed by Michael Kidd. (An early libretto by Jo Swerling was largely jettisoned.)
UNIQUE MUSICAL EVENTS | In addition to book musicals and revues, Broadway witnessed a number of unique musical events throughout the 1940s and 50s. All in One (1955), for instance, involved three separate acts of drama, opera, and tap dance; Comedy in Music (1953) was a long-running solo show written and performed by Victor Borge; Sing Out, Sweet Land (1944) was a theatrical survey of American popular music that originated at Catholic University; and Tropical Revue (1943) was a torrid dance exhibition from choreographer Katherine Dunham.