In honor of Black History month, I wanted to highlight the filmed live musicals that feature predominantly black actors and/or creative teams. I post this entry with the awareness that Black History month, also known as African American History month in the United States, is a contentious entity.
Of the 100+ musicals currently in the database, less than 10 feature predominantly black casts and/or creative teams. It is interesting to note that nearly all of these musicals feature, or are about, the music of black artists.
I want to acknowledge the frustrating fact that the current catalogue of filmed live musicals is dominated by white creators and performers. It is my hope that more musicals with diverse casts and creative teams will not only be produced, but recorded for posterity.
We are watching.
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate was a musical drama featuring the poetry of black poets. The show was directed by Vinnette Carroll, a multi-talented and highly influential actor, director, and writer who found success in both the UK and the United States.
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate aired on Theater in America in 1979.
The musical drama was released on VHS in 1999, and on DVD in 2003.
Sophisticated Ladies was a revue celebrating the music of Duke Ellington.
In November 1982, Sophisticated Ladies became the first Broadway musical to air on pay TV. Due to sour contract negotiations, and fears the telecast would affect ticket sales, most of the Broadway cast did not appear in the telecast.
The revue was released on DVD in 2005, and is also available on DVD.com.
Set in a Harlem nightclub, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue featuring the music of stride pianist Fats Waller.
The Broadway production won the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical, and went on to play 1604 performances before closing in 1982.
NBC aired a filmed live recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in June 1982. It is not officially available to view.
The Gospel at Colonus
The Gospel at Colonus is a re-telling of Sophocles’ Oepidus at Colonus through a pentecostal sermon.
The musical was filmed live during the American Music Theater Festival in 1985 and aired on PBS’ Great Performances. The cast included Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly, Robert Earl Jones, The Institutional Radio Choir, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
The Gospel at Colonus was released on DVD in 2008.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Another musical revue, Smokey Joe’s Cafe celebrated the music of 60s rock n’ roll writers Leiber and Stoller.
The cast featured a predominantly African American cast, three of whom were nominated for a Tony Award for Featured Actor or Featured Actress in a Musical, including Victor Trent Cook, B.J. Crosby, and Brenda Braxton (DeLee Lively was also nominated).
The final performance of the five year run was taped by Broadway Television Network in January 2000, and aired on pay TV in September 2000.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe is available to view on DVD.
Loosely based on the life of rock musician Stew, Passing Strange is a rock musical about a young man who leaves his conservative Californian home to find “the real” in Europe.
Spike Lee filmed the Broadway production live in 2008, and released Passing Strange: The Movie in 2009 to much acclaim. The film was aired on PBS in 2010, and also released on DVD.
Passing Strange: The Movie is available to view on DVD and on Amazon.
FELA! is a biographical musical about the pioneering Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. The musical was directed by choreographer and director Bill T. Jones, and featured Sahr Ngaujah in the title role.
When FELA! opened in London in 2010, it became the first National Theatre musical production to be concurrently running on Broadway. The London production was filmed live for the National Theatre’s NT Live program, and broadcast in cinemas around the world.
FELA! is not currently available to view.
Memphis is an original musical about the power of music to overcome racial divides in 1950s America.
Despite lackluster reviews, the musical won 4 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and played on Broadway for three years.
Memphis was the first Broadway musical to be released in cinemas whilst playing on Broadway. It was subsequently released on Netflix, DVD, and Blu-Ray, and aired on PBS’ Great Performances.
Memphis is now available to stream on BroadwayHD and YouTube.