African-American musicals have never found an easy welcome on Broadway, though they've been a presence since the end of the 19th century. Clorindy, produced in 1898, is generally considered to be the first Broadway musical featuring an all-black cast and was followed in 1903 by In Dahomey, starring the first black superstar comedy team, Bert Williams and George Walker. In 1921, Shuffle Along became a reigning hit (a revised version dramatizing the events surrounding that show's creation will open on Broadway this spring), and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, in 1934, was the first and, to date, the only "golden age" black musical to become a permanent part of the repertoire.
Porgy and Bess shared the 1934-35 season with a revival of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures, a biblical folk fable set in New Orleans, which, while not strictly a musical, featured gospel music created for the original 1930 production by the great Hall Johnson Choir. Porgy and Bess and The Green Pastures — along with Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's 1939 play Mamba's Daughters, which contained a single song by Jerome Kern — set the scene for the creation of one of the most unusual black musical theatre experiments of all, Cabin in the Sky.
The show began its life as a story by playwright Lynn Root called Little Joe. According to Howard Pollack, the author of a forthcoming biography of John Latouche, the script passed from Root's wife to the wife of comedian and actor Teddy Hart, who gave it to his brother Lorenz Hart, who shared it with his adviser and close associate Milton "Doc" Bender. Bender brought it to George Balanchine, who in turn gave it to composer Vernon Duke, who declared it "a workable book complete with song cues."
Initially reluctant to take it on himself because his Russian background suggested no natural affinity for the story's rural African-American content, Duke found himself obsessed with the script. He eventually assented to compose, with lyricist John Latouche coming on board after Duke had been turned down by no less than Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg and Johnny Mercer. The authors set out with designer Boris Aronson for Richmond, VA to try to find a feel for the work to be done. From Richmond, Duke and Latouche moved on to Virginia Beach, but, despite an attempt to drink in the atmosphere as an inspiration for their score, Duke later recalled, "There wasn't much to imbibe in Virginia Beach except highballs."
Cabin in the Sky, however, eventually did get written, and managed to display an ambitious agenda, thanks in some part to its famous predecessors. The authors and producer Albert Lewis no doubt understood that they were heirs to the high aspirations of Porgy and Bess and the authentic atmospheres of The Green Pastures and Mamba's Daughters. In the end, they included both an original score and the J. Rosamond Johnson gospel choir singing traditional spiritual material. They brought in Hugh Martin to do the kind of patented jazzy vocal arrangements he provided for Rodgers and Hart.
Having convinced Balanchine to stage the piece, they imported Katherine Dunham's dance company into the cast and gave the visionary Dunham a leading role, as well as a lot of responsibility for creating the dances. The authors combined a biblical theme (like Green Pastures) with a rural setting (like Porgy and Bess), and cast not only the original Porgy, Todd Duncan, but Rex Ingram, who had played De Lawd in the film adaptation of Green Pastures. Both were not only actors and singers, but activists and politically astute spokesmen. They knew they were representing "the race" every time they stepped on a stage, and they had a lot to say about what they were willing to do in that regard — as did Ethel Waters, who eventually agreed to be the star of Cabin in the Sky.
Waters had no interest in appearing in a musical called Little Joe, however, and only agreed to join the cast after the title was changed. Whether Waters simply didn't want to be in a show where there was a title character other than herself, or whether she found the title offensive in its paternalistic tone, is a matter of some dispute.
In fact, dispute was a frequent visitor as Cabin worked its way toward Broadway. Duke (who wrote classical music under his real name, Vladimir Dukelsky), Balanchine and Aronson argued with each other in Russian, while the cast, to some degree, made its own decisions about what to do next. In the end, Cabin, for all its lofty ambitions and experimentation, was a soft hit. It played for 158 performances, and had a national tour that landed in Los Angeles, where it came to the attention of Hollywood.
In 1943, MGM turned it into an inexpensive movie musical, jettisoning a lot of Duke and Latouche's score, hiring Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg to supply a few new songs (Duke was serving in World War II at the time), and cramming the movie with specialty acts like Louis Armstrong, Willie Best, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Butterfly McQueen. Lena Horne played the Katherine Dunham role. Vincente Minnelli made his directorial debut, with an uncredited assist from Busby Berkeley. That is the version of Cabin in the Sky that we know, to whatever degree we know it at all.
What remained of the 1940 Broadway original was the script, and a copy of the conductor's piano score showing the blend of jazz, gospel and classical elements. It was just barely enough for Encores! to begin the process of restoring what is, in effect, a lost show. The original orchestrations are nowhere to be found. The choreography (there are two significant ballets and a big dance sequence in a nightclub) is gone, though a piano version of the original dance music is contained in the score that we have.
The exact placement of these dances in the original is not always clear, but the Playbill for the show's run at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) suggests approximately where at least two of them took place. Four recordings of the period featuring Ethel Waters and "The Martin Beck Theatre Orchestra" give us good hints of what the sound and instrumentation must have been, at least in a general way.
This, needless to say, is the kind of challenge that we find impossible to resist, and the score — sophisticated, flavorful, classically composed, and always informed by Duke's fluent mastery of jazz harmonies — became more of an obsession the more we played through it. The eternally popular "Taking A Chance on Love," the utterly graceful and beautiful title song, the mischievous swing of "Do What You Want to Do," and that gorgeous dance music, let us know that we had to expose it to the world.
Under Rob Berman's careful supervision, we began the process in 2014. The legendary Jonathan Tunick (Stephen Sondheim's principal orchestrator) agreed to take on the task of creating a new orchestration, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, perhaps best known as a Tony Award-winning interpreter of the works of August Wilson, agreed not only to direct, but to edit the script with an eye on both 1940 and 2016. Speaking about deciding what to keep and what to erase, from a racial perspective, he said, "I don't want to end the conversation; I want to keep it going….but we won't say 'pickaninny,' because that word, today, just takes us out of the play. It stops us."
We restored "Little Papa Satan," a cut song that turns out to have been the musical source of one of the ballets, and we agonized a bit over whether to include any elements of the film version that were not contained in the original work. In the end we settled for just one. With the kind permission of the authors' estates, we've kept the Arlen/Harburg song "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," simply because it's a standard that's associated with the title Cabin in the Sky. Consider it a small betrayal of the mission or a bit of artistic license as you wish — we wanted to hear it, and thought audiences would too.
We present the truest Cabin in the Sky we can in the 21st century, the second musical reborn through the support of The Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Broadway Musical Restoration Fund. It's been a labor of love from the very beginning, and we're proud to share the fruits of that love affair with the Encores! audience.
Jack Viertel is the author of "The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built."