George Walker, Adah Overton Walker, and Bert Williams dance
|Music||Will Marion Cook|
|Lyrics||Paul Laurence Dunbar|
|Book||Jesse A. Shipp|
1904 New York City
In Dahomey was a landmark American musical comedy, in that it was "the first full-length musical written and played by blacks to be performed at a major Broadway house." It featured music by Will Marion Cook, book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The production, produced by McVon Hurtig and Harry Seamon, was also the first to star African Americans James Smith and George Sisay, as well as one of the leading comedians in America at that time, Bert Williams. In Dahomey opened on February 18, 1903, at the New York Theater, and ran for 53 performances (then considered a successful run).
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During its four-year tour, In Dahomey proved one of the most successful musical comedies of its era. The show helped make its composer, lyricist and leading performers household names. Significantly, the New York Theater production of In Dahomey marked the first full-length African American musical to be staged in an indoors venue on Broadway (following the earlier success of Clorindy in a rooftop setting). Furthermore, In Dahomey was the first black musical to have its score published (albeit in the UK, not America).
In Dahomey also marked an important milestone in the evolution of the American musical comedy. The score made use of the "high operetta style" that its composer Will Marion Cook had studied, in addition to using the relatively new form of ragtime in its finale, "The Czar of Dixie." According to John Graziano, author of Black Theatre USA, it was "the first African American show that synthesized successfully the various genres of American musical theatre popular at the beginning of the twentieth century—minstrelsy, vaudeville, comic opera, and musical comedy."
Tours in England and America
Based on the show's New York success, the producers of In Dahomey transferred the entire production to England, on April 28, 1903, with a staging at the Shaftesbury Theatre, followed by a provincial tour around England. This was capped by a command performance celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, when it was heralded as "the most popular musical show in London."
After a year touring England and Scotland, In Dahomey was transported back to New York, where it reopened on August 27, 1904, at the Grand Opera House, and ran for 17 performances. This in turn launched a major 40-week tour across America, playing such cities as San Francisco, Portland and St. Louis, and turning in a profit of $64,000.
Song From Show Boat
"In Dahomey" is also the title of a now rarely performed choral number from the classic 1927 musical play Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The song is meant to be performed as the last number in Act II, Scene I of the show, a scene that also features the "Act II Opening (Sports of Gay Chicago)" and the hit love song "Why Do I Love You?" "In Dahomey" is performed by what is supposedly a horde of African natives who are part of an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The song begins with the "natives" chanting in what is supposedly an African language, but as soon as the crowd disperses, they begin to sing in American dialect, revealing themselves to be African Americans playing roles, and not genuine natives of Dahomey at all. Bert Williams himself had played an African "native" at the San Francisco Midwinter Exposition of 1894 when the Dahomey natives were late arriving from Chicago to San Francisco to occupy the African pavilion. The lyrics now become a comic expression of relief at the fact that the "natives" can now return to their apartments in New York.
Perhaps because of its potentially racially offensive content, and because the song is, strictly speaking, one of the few having absolutely no connection with the musical's storyline, the song "In Dahomey" was eliminated from the score of Show Boat after the musical's 1946 revival, and it has never been used in a film version of the show. Nor did it ever become a hit. However, it has been recorded three times, in 1928 by the original chorus used in the first London production of the show, in 1988 by the Ambrosian Chorus with John McGlinn conducting, who used it in his landmark 1988 EMI recording of the complete score of Show Boat, and in 1993 for the Studio Cast recording of 1946 revival version. It was omitted from the cast album of the 1946 Broadway revival of Show Boat, although it had been included in the revival.
Other references to In Dahomey
- Percy Grainger wrote a highly virtuosic concert rag entitled In Dahomey (Cakewalk Smasher), in which he blended tunes from Cook's show and Arthur Pryor's popular cakewalk number, A Coon Band Contest. In this tribute to contemporary African American music, the clash of the two tunes creates what has been called "a page of almost Ivesian dissonance". Grainger would have been able to see Cook's In Dahomey on stage in London in 1903, and it was then that he started composing his rag (Grainger completed the score some six years later, in 1909).
- Bordman, Gerald, Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 190.
- Riis, Thomas L., ed. (1996). The music and scripts of In Dahomey. A-R Editions. ISBN 0-89579-342-3.
- Charters, Ann. Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams (London: The MacMillan Company, 1970), pp. 69-71.
- Riis, Thomas L., Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890-1915 (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), p. 91.
- History of The Musical Stage 1900-1910: Part III by John Kenrick (copyright 1996 & 2008).
- Hatch, James. V. Black Theatre USA (New York: The Free Press, 1996), pp. 64-65.
- Carter, Marva Griffin (2008). Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook, Chapter 6. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510891-0
- Graziano, p. 65.
- Graziano, p. 65.
- Graziano, p. 64.
- Graziano, John, "In Dahomey", in Black Theatre: U.S.A. (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 76.
- Graziano, p. 77.
- Mary Kay Duggan, "Publishing California Sheet Music: San Francisco Midwinter Exposition," Quarterly Newsletter of the Book Club of California (2010).
- Show Boat, Ziegfeld Theatre. IBDB.
- Show Boat, Uris Theatre. IBDB.
- Ould, Barry Peter (1996). Grainger piano music (pdf). Hyperion Records. Retrieved 2011-09-16.
- Lewis, Thomas P (1991). A source guide to the music of Percy Grainger, chapter 4: Program notes. White Plains: Pro-Am Music Resources. ISBN 978-0-912483-56-6. Retrieved 2011-09-16.