Raisin’ Some Memories of Raisin By Peter Filichia
Funny thing; soon after I’d watched the film 42 — which details Jackie Robinson’s historic journey in becoming become baseball’s first black player and superstar — I realized that that number was about to be relevant to African-American history once again.
Raisin – the musical version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun — opened forty-two years ago at what was then the 46th Street Theatre (and now the Richard Rodgers) on Oct. 18, 1973.
Raisin was a product of Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theatre Workshop – and the first of its shows to win the Tony Award as Best Musical. The irony is that its source material did not win the Tony for Best Play. Although A Raisin in the Sun was nominated in 1959-60, it lost to The Miracle Worker.
And yet, it’s the Hansberry play and not William Gibson’s that I always include when asked to name the world’s most important plays. The reason is that A Raisin in the Sun was able to change the minds of many white theatergoers — and back then, believe me, there was no other kind.
When they walked into the Barrymore (and later the Belasco) during one of its 530 performances, many didn’t want African Americans living in their neighborhood. When some of those same people left the theater, they’d come to realize that they’d overreacted. The Youngers were a nice family and had worked and struggled so hard that they deserved to move in next door.
You know the story, but just in case: Lena is the matriarch of a three-generational African-American family that lives in a small Chicago apartment. That she, her son Walter Lee, daughter Beneatha, daughter-in-law Ruth and grandson Travis must maneuver in a tiny flat is bad enough; what they also share is a way-down-the-hall bathroom with other tenants.
However, the family does have $10,000 coming to them because of the life insurance policy that Lena’s now-deceased husband once bought. Walter Lee wants the money to invest in a liquor store; Lena prefers that the family have a new home. Walter Lee’s supposed business partner steals his share of the money, but Lena has enough to put a deposit on a house in a part of town that has always been all-white.
That spurs a representative from “The Neighborhood Improvement Association” to arrive, willing to pay handsomely if the blacks don’t take the house. And they do need the money with Walter Lee’s losing so much of it.
Here’s betting that plenty in the audience assumed that the Youngers would make their lost money back, but Hansberry had a much different scenario in mind.
There’s no logical reason why the show should be called Raisin. After all, “Man Say,” Walter Lee’s powerful opening song (with the deft lyric “That boy sleeping in the living room needs living room to grow”) mentions “Eat your eggs,” but it doesn’t mention raisins. Yet the musical understandably wanted to ride on the coattails of the play, which incidentally took its name from the opening lines of a 1951 Langston Hughes poem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
After lyricist Judd Woldin and composer Robert Brittan met in BMI in the early ‘60s, they started the project and wanted to show their work to Hansberry, but she was never well enough to hear it. During the 1964-65 run of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, her second Broadway play, she died of cancer at the age of thirty-four.
But the authors’ BMI classmates and Engel appreciated their efforts so much that the writers were eventually able to get to Robert Nemiroff, who’d once been married to Hansberry. Although the two had divorced some years before she died, Hansberry had made Nemiroff her literary executor. When Nemiroff heard Woldin and Brittan’s work, he decided a musical was a good idea – especially if he could produce and write the book.
Nemiroff didn’t pen it alone, however. By this time, he’d forged an alliance with Charlotte Zaltzberg, who’d been a mere script associate on Hansberry’s Les Blancs when it had its Broadway premiere in 1970. Obviously Nemiroff believed in Zaltzberg, because he collaborated with her on the musical version of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Alas, that lasted a mere five performances in 1972, but Raisin soon followed with a run of 847 performances. At that time, only thirty-one book musicals had ever run longer in the entire history of Broadway.
Neither Nemiroff nor Zaltzberg ever had another Broadway credit, for they too died young. Nemiroff at least made it to sixty-one, dying in 1991, but Zalztberg didn’t even survive the length of Raisin’s run; she died at forty-nine only four months after the show had opened. That she died a mere three days after she saw it win the Tony suggests the possibility that the Tony race kept her alive a little longer.
Virginia Capers’ Lena won a Tony, too, as Best Actress in a Musical. Mama, as she’s more often called, has a little Daisy Gamble in her, for she sings to her potted plant that it deserves “A Whole Lotta Sunlight.” Capers also got the powerful 11 o’clock ballad “Measure the Valleys,” in which she tells Beneatha that Walter Lee should receive her love in bad times and not just the good.
Capers was also the centerpiece of the rousing gospel number that opened the second act, “He Come Down This Morning.” But also having a chance to make his mark in that song was twelve-and-a-half year-old Ralph Carter, who played Travis. Not much later, he had a solo: “Sidewalk Tree,” in which he gave his goodbyes to the modest maple outside their woebegone apartment. “Gonna have the good things Daddy never had,” he sang, before amending it with “Even though I’m happy livin’ with the bad.”
Carter literally and figuratively had good times in his future. When Norman Lear was developing a new TV series called Good Times, he thought Carter would be ideal for it. And why not? The kid would play the young son in a black family that lived in a bad Chicago neighborhood – pretty much the same situation as Raisin’s.
Nemiroff allowed Carter out of his contract, but did demand that Good Times put in its end credits that it was grateful to Raisin for allowing him to do the series (a credit you could see only if you’d been a star pupil at Evelyn Wood). Carter, as the feisty Michael Evans, did all 133 episodes of the 1974-1979 series, but then pretty much retired from show business to do social and church work. Maybe “He Come Down This Morning” was a bigger influence than we might have imagined.
Staying in the entertainment field, however, were Joe Morton and Debbie Allen, who played the Younger siblings. He’s since won an Emmy; she choreographed the infamous Carrie but rebounded by directing a successful Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Before that, Allen had starred in two revivals, playing Anita in West Side Story and the title role in Sweet Charity.
Speaking of Sweet Charity, Raisin did lift a joke from it. In “Charity’s Soliloquy,” our hard-luck hostess complains about her boyfriend: “The bum wants to go to Florida. C’mon down!” In “Not Anymore,” Beneatha jokes about an unlikely scenario in which a white person would say to her “I’m on Miami Beach! C’mon down!”
The explanation? Each winter in the early ‘60s, the now-defunct Eastern Airlines would air many TV commercials that showed sunbathers in swimsuits luxuriating by a Miami pool. “Come on down!” the airline’s spokesperson would tell and taunt those freezing up north.
“Not Anymore” has Lena arrive home just after “The Neighborhood Improvement Association’s” visit. Walter Lee, Ruth and Beneatha point out that whites no longer threaten or kill to drive away potential black neighbors; now they negotiate. But the bottom line is that they still don’t want blacks anywhere near them. (Chances are that Engel was responsible for this song. His oft-given advice to his students was “Look for humor in dark places,” and that’s what lyricist Woldin did here.)
The song has a reference to “Clybourne Park” – the neighborhood where Lena Younger wants to move. The location now has more meaning to contemporary theatergoers because Bruce Norris wrote a play by that title that had been inspired by A Raisin in the Sun. If Hansberry has an afterlife that afforded her a look at the 2010-11 Tonys, she must have been pleased, for Clybourne Park won the Tony. And three years later, her play finally received a Tony for Best Revival of a Play.
Given that so many stars of previous Broadway musicals have appeared in recent revivals of A Raisin in the Sun – Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose among them — maybe they can be enticed to reconnect for a revival of Raisin. Of course, many of us who cotton to Broadway music might have our doubts about the singing abilities of P. Diddy …
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.