Cabin in the Sky (musical)

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Cabin in the Sky
Cabin in the Sky (musical) cover.jpg
MusicVernon Duke
LyricsJohn Latouche
BookLynn Root
Productions1940 Martin Beck Theatre

Cabin in the Sky is a musical with music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root, and lyrics by John Latouche. The musical opened on Broadway in 1940.[1] The show is described as a "parable of Southern Negro Life with echoes of Ferenc Molnár's Liliom (which would be turned into the musical Carousel) and Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures."[2]


Lynn Root wrote the libretto and brought it to George Balanchine, "who was anxious to do it as his first assignment as director of an entire Broadway production."[3] Balanchine took the script to Vernon Duke to compose the music. "On reading the script, my first impulse was to turn it down because as much as I admired the Negro race and its musical gifts, I didn't think myself sufficiently attuned to Negro folklore."[4] However, Duke ended up taking up the project but insisted on "a lyricist with some direct contact with Southern Negroes."[3] Duke talked to Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg but they both turned it down. (Gershwin was working on Lady in the Dark and Harburg thought the composer was "incapable of writing the kind of score the play required.[3])

Duke ended up picking John Latouche as his lyricist and the two began work in Virginia Beach.[5] The two wanted to absorb aspects of the local Black culture but "decided to stay away from pedantic authenticity and write our own kind of 'colored' songs."[4]

The rehearsals for the show were rather interesting between the Russian trio (Duke, Balanchine and Boris Aronson - the designer) and the all-black cast. In his book Passport to Paris, Duke quotes George Ross' description from the Telegram: "Pit a threesome of turbulent Russians against a tempestuous cast of Negro players from Harlem and what have you got? Well, in this instance the result is a lingual ruckus approaching bedlam. At least half a dozen times at the rehearsal of Cabin in the Sky, Ethel Waters, Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram, J. Rosamond Johnson, Katherine Dunham and her dancers have paused in puzzlement while the argumentative trio of Muscovites disputed a difference of opinion in their native tongue. The Russian vowels and consonants fly as thick as borsht. After ten minutes of such alien harangue and retort, Miss Waters asks what it is all about. ‘George,’ Duke generally interprets, ‘just said the answer is yes!' and then rehearsals are resumed under the flag of truce until the next vocal flare-up."[4]

Three days before the opening, Duke decided to replace the song "We'll Live All Over Again" after Waters expressed dissatisfaction with it. It was replaced with the showstopper "Taking a Chance on Love."[5] The song was originally "Foolin' Around with Love" which he wrote with Ted Fetter. Latouche retitled it and wrote the reprises.[3]

J. Rosamond Johnson, besides taking a small role, trained the singing chorus. Katherine Dunham led her dancers through their slithering paces, assisted in the choreography by George Balanchine.[6]


The musical premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on October 25, 1940 and closed on March 8, 1941 after 156 performances. The musical is based on the story Little Joe by Lynn Root.

Musicals Tonight! presented a staged concert of the musical at the 14th Street YMHA, New York City in October 2003.[7][8]

The musical was presented in a staged concert by Encores! in February 2016, starring Chuck Cooper, Norm Lewis, and LaChanze.[9]

Musical numbers[edit]

Source: Internet Broadway Database[1]

ACT 1:

  • "The General's Song" - Lawd's General and Saints
  • "Pay Heed" - Lawd's General and Saints
  • "Taking a Chance on Love" - Petunia
  • "Cabin in the Sky" - Petunia and Little Joe
  • "Holy Unto the Lord" - Petunia, Little Joe, Brother Green, and Churchmembers
  • "Dem Bones" - Petunia, J. Rosamond Johnson Singer, and Churchmembers
  • "Do What You Wanna Do" - Lucifier Jr and Imps
  • "Taking a Chance on Love (reprise)" - Petunia and Little Joe

ACT 2:

  • "Fugue" - Lawd's General and Saints
  • "My Old Virginia Home on the Nile" - Petunia and Little Joe
  • "Egyptian Ballet" - The Dunham Dancers
  • "It's Not So Good To Be Bad" - Lawd's General
  • "Love Me Tomorrow" - Georgia Brown and Little Joe
  • "Love Turned the Light Out" - Petunia
  • "Lazy Steps" - The Dunham Dancers
  • "Boogy Woogy" - The Dunham Dancers
  • "Honey in the Honeycomb" - Georgia Brown and Boys
  • "Savannah" - Petunia

Characters and original cast[edit]

The original Broadway characters and cast:[1]

Character Broadway (1940)
Petunia Ethel Waters
Little Joe Dooley Wilson
Lucifer Junior Rex Ingram
Georgia Brown Katherine Dunham
Lawd's General Todd Duncan
Fleetfoot Milton Williams
Dr. Jones Louis Sharp
John Henry J. Louis Johnson
Lily Georgia Burke
Domino Johnson Dick Campbell
Imps Jieno Moxzer Harris
Brother Green J. Rosamond Johnson

Critical reception[edit]

The musical was very well received. Gerald Bordman wrote "Wisely, everyone involved in the show rejected the easy excesses and crassness so many musicals resorted to. Certainly they avoided turning the evening into a black minstrel show. Throughout the production a tasteful restraint, a sense of what as appropriate to the story, was maintained. This rare display of integrity made Cabin in the Sky an attractive enough evening to keep ticket buyers coming for 20 weeks."[6]

Thomas S. Hischak wrote, "With enthusiastic reviews, an outstanding score, and a powerhouse cast of some of the finest African Americans in the business, it was surprising the musical did not run longer than twenty weeks."[10]

However, not everyone liked the show. Critic Richard Watts, Jr. wrote in his review that the show was "merely a white man's self-conscious attempt to write a pseudo-folk fable of another race."[11]

Cabin in the Sky proved to be the last major success of Duke's career.[12]

The show was made into the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky, but as Denny Flinn stated in his book, "It is noble that Hollywood made a black musical at all, but there are too many interpolations to the John Latouche-Vernon Duke score."[13]


  1. ^ a b c "Cabin in the Sky | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  2. ^ Green, Stanley (2011). Broadway Musicals: Show By Show. Milwaukee: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 111. ISBN 978-1-55783-784-4.
  3. ^ a b c d Green, Stanley (1980). The World of Musical Comedy. San Diego: Da Capo Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-306-80207-4.
  4. ^ a b c Duke, Vernon (1955). Passport to Paris. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. pp. 384–389.
  5. ^ a b Weber, Kate Marie (2008). "Beyond Racial Stereotypes: Subversive Subtexts in Cabin in the Sky" (PDF). Digital Repository of the University of Maryland. University of Maryland. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  6. ^ a b Bordman, Gerald (1992). American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 521–522. ISBN 0-19-507242-1.
  7. ^ Simonson, Robert and Jones, Kenneth. "Musicals Tonight! Takes a Chance on 'Cabin in the Sky'", October 21, 2003
  8. ^ "'Cabin in the Sky' Reviews", October 21, 2003, accessed December 12, 2015
  9. ^ Hetrick, Adam. "Chuck Cooper, LaChanze, Norm Lewis Will Star in Encores! 'Cabin in the Sky'", December 7, 2015
  10. ^ Hischak, Thomas (2009). Broadway Plays and Musicals. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-7864-9754-6.
  11. ^ "The Pittsburgh Press - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 2015-10-24.
  12. ^ Bloom, Ken (2004). Broadway: Its History, People, and Places. New York: Routledge. p. 137. ISBN 0-4159-3704-3.
  13. ^ Flinn, Denny (1997). Musical! A Grand Tour. New York: Schirmer Books. p. 504. ISBN 0-02-864610-X.

External links[edit]