The Daily Distraction: Paul Robeson Sings 'Ol' Man River' for Sydney Opera House Workers

Video   The Daily Distraction: Paul Robeson Sings 'Ol' Man River' for Sydney Opera House Workers
 
The singer and activist, born on this day in 1898, reworked the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics to become an anthem of resistance.

These are frightening times, and we all must take necessary precautions as we social distance and self-isolate. That being said, you deserve a break every now and then. Welcome to Playbill's Daily Distraction.

Day 24: Keep On Rollin'

As we make sense of uncertain times, we often look to the words of musical theatre writers. From "Take Me to the World" from Sondheim's Evening Primrose to "Beautiful City" from Schwartz's Godspell, show tune lyrics take on newfound resonance.

Paul Robeson, born April 9, 1898, found similar power in one of his standards: Show Boat's "Ol' Man River." The performer played Joe in the original London production and 1932 revival of the musical by Joseph Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Watch above as he performs his rendition for construction workers at the site of the Sydney Opera House in 1960.

By this time, Robeson was revered for his work as a trailblazing African-American stage and screen star and reviled by the many in the U.S. as a stalwart for civil rights, unionization, Communist sympathy. He was blacklisted, denied a passport, and often the subject of public criticism from the government.

Nevertheless, Robeson remained defiant, as lyricalized in his alterations to the song. "Get a little drunk" is changed to "show a little grit." Instead of getting "weary" and "tired of living," he "keeps laughing instead of crying," proclaiming, "I must keep fighting until I'm dying."

It was one of his final public performances, but one that remains a display of solidarity and resilience.

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