Thursday, September 30, 2010

Broadway in Boulder

This weekend I'm off to Boulder, Colorado to participate in the sixth Susan Porter Memorial Symposium, this year focusing on "Classic Broadway and Those Who Built it." My talk stems from my ongoing obsession/fascination with the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence in The King and I, which if you haven't seen, is really something to behold.

Like many Broadway musicals themselves, it's an odd duck, using less than ideologically pure means (minstrel-like conventions and the legacy of the Uncle Tom Show) for ostensibly politically liberal ends. A "puzzlement" indeed, as the King might put it. Especially when you consider it in the context of other, less self-consciously troubled minstrel numbers from the era, such as this killer routine from, of all places, White Christmas.

Indeed, there's something about Vermont and minstrel shows. To cite another movie musical, there's the fantastic "Get Happy" number from Summer Stock. More seriously, but hardly less strange, was Ralph Ellison's encounter with an "Uncle Tom Show" as he was beginning work on Invisible Man in rural Vermont. He famously happened upon:

…a poster announcing the performance of a “Tom Show,” that forgotten term for blackface minstrel versions of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had thought such entertainment a thing of the past, but there in a quiet northern village it was alive and kicking, with Eliza frantically slipping and sliding on the ice, still trying—and that during World War II!—to escape the slavering hounds.

As for the enduring legacy of minstrelsy, old habits really do die hard. I can only ask you to consider what was the first joke you ever learned to tell. For me, and I would guess many others, it was the old minstrel standard: "-Why did the chicken cross the road? -To get to the other side..." We all, it would seem, have got a bit of minstrel in us...

1 comment:

Got the World on a Ping said...

I can't remember my first joke, but I do remember loving White Christmas. "Sisters...sisters...there were never such devoted sisters..."