Cabin In the Sky, the Encores reconstruction at City Center is a cheerful earful from 1940 that speaks to our fraught present in some intriguing ways. Composer Vernon Duke had some initial doubts that he, a Russian émigré, was the right writer for the project. And you think about his reticence and you might go, damn straight: This is a musical about black people, and religion is an important element, and the story would be best told by black artists – the one Duke who should be on this project is Ellington.
75 years later, we don’t particularly want to hear what white people have to say about the African-American experience. We, as a theatre community, sometimes bend over backwards to ensure the authenticity of shows about minorities. I can now reveal that I once thought of writing an opera about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. One thing that stopped me was that it’s considered wrong, in certain circles, for a white guy to give voice to black characters. Years later, I was writing a musical about Jewish characters at a religious retreat. Something nagged inside of me: I’m not a religious person; I have no spiritual beliefs. Ergo, I’m the wrong guy to write this show.
But let’s consider the alternate universe in which nothing held me back and Clarence and Anita got produced at New York City Opera. Then the title roles would be filled by black performers who’d get raves, adulation and career propulsion. Here in the real world, there are tons of performers-of-color who are underused, and get typed out at auditions for The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. And New York City Opera ceased to exist.
If you’re miffed that the world of musical comedy is not a meritocracy, seeing an all-black cast can be cathartic. LaChanze is one of the outstanding performers of our time but the opportunities to see her are far too few. (Compare Mary Testa, for instance.) Norm Lewis has the voice that melts, a honeyed resonance. Chuck Cooper can still bring it. I’m not an expert on dance, but the original Cabin in the Sky had Katherine Dunham and it’s easy to imagine a dancer in this ensemble going on to change the world. Nine blocks downtown, audiences accept people of color cast as the faces you see on money. We don’t flinch when characters break out into song. And yet a black Henry Higgins or Asian Dolly Levi – well, that’s just not done.
The Motion Picture Academy has been under heavy criticism for the lack of black nominees in the acting award categories. A black friend tweeted, during the big blizzard: “It looks like the Oscars out there.” One observation about all of this: Artists thrive on freedom. We need fewer unwritten rules about what we can’t do. And, sometimes, a bunch of white dudes writing about black people can produce a wholly positive piece of entertainment. The history of race relations in this country is harrowing, disturbing in the extreme. But it hasn’t been 100% bad, and, in the rarely-seen musical Cabin in the Sky, well, nab yourself a ticket and see for yourself.
First and foremost is Vernon Duke’s music. When he was young, George Gershwin took him under his wing. In this score, song after song makes use of jazz, just as George might have. (He died a few years before it was written, but he saw brother Ira collaborate with Duke, most notably on the standard, I Can’t Get Started.) Melodies like these constantly surprise us. We can’t predict where they’re going, when the next blue note will pop up. I’m reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s criticism of my favorite song, which mentions a constantly surprising refrain. Sondheim says there’s no such thing. Well, he’s wrong and Duke’s achievement here is the perfect rebuttal.
One odd thing: The score is not wholly original. There are a couple of traditional numbers for gospel choirs. The Duke songs (with lyrics by John LaTouche) stand side by side with The Real Thing and manage to hold there own. I was particularly taken with a duet about a Virginia home on the Nile, but every unfamiliar number tickles with its unpredictability.
As I was appreciating this, God help me, I thought of the current shlockmeister Frank Wildhorn. His tunes are so obvious, I can predict most of the notes before they arrive. As a result, I’m bored, uninterested and unengaged. Duke, like Gershwin, employs the element of surprise to most pleasing effect. At Encores, the songs are put across by brilliant vocalists such as LaChanze and Norm Lewis. The large orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman, is in shimmering Big Band Era form. And the dances are especially entertaining: Camille A. Brown’s responsible for these, as no evidence remains of what George Balanchine did originally.
The other thing that doesn’t remain: orchestrations. So who should Encores call upon to whip up new ones, but Jonathan Tunick. Both Brown and Tunick’s work enabled me to fantasize I was taking in what audiences did in 1940.
Do I have anything negative to say? I do. Something that the authors didn’t understand is that a character, alone on stage, expressing sadness about her love life is less than riveting. We’ve seen the story; we know she’s sad. We really don’t need to hear about it. That’s telling us something we already know, and no matter how mellifluous the tune, or how vibrant the singing, self-pity is bound to be uncompelling on stage. Shows like this, pre-Oklahoma!, didn’t know better. But we do today, so you can all stop writing those doormat dirges, O.K.?
But listen to Duke. Study the way he applied his classical Russian music education to the realm of jazz, and you’ll begin to understand the fascination of a well-wrought tune. The example’s on stage though Valentine’s Day. Go give that sweet gift to yourself.