In Dahomey

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In Dahomey
In Dahomey 1903.jpg
George Walker, Adah Overton Walker, and Bert Williams dance
Music Will Marion Cook
Lyrics Paul Laurence Dunbar
Book Jesse A. Shipp
Productions 1903 Broadway
1904 New York City

In Dahomey was a landmark American musical comedy, "the first full-length musical written and played by blacks to be performed at a major Broadway house."[1] It featured music by Will Marion Cook, book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.[2] Produced by McVon Hurtig and Harry Seamon, this musical was the first to star African Americans James Smith and George Sisay, as well as Bert Williams, one of the leading comedians in America at that time.[3] In Dahomey opened on February 18, 1903, at the New York Theater, and ran for 53 performances (then considered a successful run).[4] It had a tour in the United Kingdom, followed by a highly successful tour of the United States, which lasted a total of four years.[5]


The story tells of a group of African Americans who, having found a pot of gold, move to Africa and become rulers of Dahomey (present-day Benin).[6]


In Dahomey marked an important milestone in the evolution of the American musical comedy. Its composer Will Marion Cook combined the "high operetta style" he had studied with the relatively new form of ragtime in the finale "The Czar of Dixie."[7] According to John Graziano, author of Black Theatre USA, it was "the first African American show.The score made use of the "high operetta style" studied by hj 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."[8]

Significantly, the New York Theater production of In Dahomey marked the first full-length African American musical to be staged in an indoor venue on Broadway (following the earlier success of Clorindy in a rooftop setting).[9] During its four-year tour, In Dahomey proved one of the most successful musical comedies of its era.[5] The show helped make its composer, lyricist and leading performers household names. In Dahomey was the first black musical to have its score published (albeit in the UK, not the US).[10]

Tours in England and America[edit]

The poster announcing the London premiere of In Dahomey at the Shafesbury Theatre, 1903. The poster features the famous cake walk with Bert Williams, acclaimed comedian, at the top of the cake.

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 ninth birthday of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace[11] when it was heralded as "the most popular musical show in London."[12]

After a year touring England and Scotland, In Dahomey was transported back to New York, It reopened on August 27, 1904, at the Grand Opera House, and ran for 17 performances. This was followed by a major 40-week tour across the United States. It played such cities as San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and St. Louis, turning in a profit of $64,000.[13]

Song from Show Boat[edit]

In 1894 the comedian Bert Williams was hired to play an African "native" at the San Francisco Midwinter Exposition of 1894, when the Dahomey natives who had been in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair were late reaching San Francisco. They were again supposed to occupy the African pavilion.[14]

Having learned of the use of people in exhibits at the fairs, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a song, "In Dahomey," for their 1927 musical, Show Boat. Intended as the last number in Act II, Scene I, "In Dahomey" is performed by a purported group of African natives featured in an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The song begins with the "natives" chanting in what is supposedly an African language. After the watching crowd disperses, they switch to singing in an American dialect, revealing they are American blacks playing roles, not Dahomey natives.[14] The lyrics expressed the relief of the "natives" that they could soon go home to their New York apartments.[15] This scene earlier features the "Act II Opening (Sports of Gay Chicago)" and the hit love song "Why Do I Love You?"

The song was never a hit. After the musical's 1946 revival on Broadway, the song "In Dahomey" was omitted from the score of Show Boat. Although the song was performed in the 1946 revival, it was omitted from the cast album recorded of that Broadway production. [16] It has never been used in a film version of the show. It may have been removed because of its potentially offensive content, and because the song is, strictly speaking, one of the few having no connection to the musical's storyline.

But, the song has been recorded three times as part of the full musical: in 1928 by the original chorus who performed in the first London production of the show; in 1988 by the Ambrosian Chorus with John McGlinn conducting, who included it in his landmark 1988 EMI recording of the complete score of Show Boat; and in 1993 for the Studio Cast recording of the 1946 revival version.

Other references to In Dahomey[edit]

  • Percy Grainger wrote a 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".[17] 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".[17][18] Grainger may have seen Cook's In Dahomey on stage in London in 1903. He started composing his rag that year, completing the score some six years later, in 1909).[17]


  1. ^ Bordman, Gerald, Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 190.
  2. ^ Riis, Thomas L., ed. (1996). The music and scripts of In Dahomey. A-R Editions. ISBN 0-89579-342-3.
  3. ^ Charters, Ann. Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams (London: The MacMillan Company, 1970), pp. 69-71.
  4. ^ Riis, Thomas L., Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890-1915 (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), p. 91
  5. ^ a b Hatch, James. V. Black Theatre USA (New York: The Free Press, 1996), pp. 64-65
  6. ^ History of The Musical Stage 1900-1910: Part III by John Kenrick (copyright 1996 & 2008).
  7. ^ Graziano, p. 65.
  8. ^ Graziano, p. 64.
  9. ^ Carter, Marva Griffin (2008). Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook, Chapter 6. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510891-0
  10. ^ Graziano, p. 65
  11. ^ The Times (London, England) 24 June 1903, p. 7
  12. ^ Graziano, John, "In Dahomey", in Black Theatre: U.S.A. (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 76.
  13. ^ Graziano, p. 77
  14. ^ a b Mary Kay Duggan, "Publishing California Sheet Music: San Francisco Midwinter Exposition," Quarterly Newsletter of the Book Club of California (2010).
  15. ^ Show Boat, Ziegfeld Theatre. IBDb.
  16. ^ Show Boat, Uris Theatre. IBDB.
  17. ^ a b c Ould, Barry Peter (1996). Grainger piano music (pdf). Hyperion Records. Retrieved 2011-09-16.
  18. ^ 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.

See also[edit]