For generations, music has been a source of protest, healing and triumph in the Black community and a source of inspiration for all Americans. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared June Black Music Month, later renamed Black Music Appreciation Month by President Barack Obama to honor these immeasurable contributions. In recognition of this celebration we highlight four Black composers and creatives for their groundbreaking work in Musical Theatre. These revolutionary talents – and their work – continue to inspire audiences and artists alike.
Charlie Smalls, Composer, The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1943-1987)
Charlie Smalls was a Black composer and songwriter born on October 25, 1943, in Queens, New York. A musical prodigy, Smalls began attending the Juilliard School of Music in 1954 at the age of 11. Following his high school graduation, he toured as a pianist with the New York Jazz Repertory Company, working with other notable jazz musicians including Hugh Masekela, a famous South African performer for whom Smalls wrote the song “From Me To You.”
Smalls was the primary composer and lyricist for The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which uniquely blended gospel, soul and blues, and he collaborated with musicians, such as Luther Vandross and Zachary Walzer to create its musical score. Although initially premiering in 1974 to mixed reviews, the show found mainstream success with the song “Ease On Down The Road,” which was featured in a 1975 commercial. Thanks to favorable word-of-mouth, the musical continued to run for four years on Broadway and went on to receive seven Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards. Eventually, the song would go on to reach #42 on the Billboard Hot 1000 and #19 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles, as well as receive a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for the 1978 film recording. The success of The Wiz and its musical compositions would later inspire musicals such as Dreamgirls and Sophisticated Ladies in the decade following.
Luther Henderson, Composer, Jelly’s Last Jam (1919-2003)
Luther Henderson was a composer, arranger, orchestrator and pianist who made extensive contributions to Broadway musicals. Originally from Harlem, New York, Henderson served in the Navy during World War II and was an arranger for the Navy band while he was stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. He later served as the staff orchestrator for the U.S. Navy School of Music. Following the war, his career would include professional collaborations with leading musical notables of the time, including Duke Ellington, (for whom he would serve as classical orchestrator for Ellington’s symphonic works), Lena Horne and Richard Rogers, among others. On Broadway, Henderson served as orchestrator, arranger, and musical director on more than fifty Broadway musicals, including Flower Drum Song, Funny Girl and Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Jelly’s Last Jam served as his Broadway composing debut (Henderson wrote additional music for the piece and served as music orchestrator for the musical that features the music of Jelly Roll Morton). Premiering in Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, the musical would go on to receive three Tony Awards, as well as six Drama Desk Awards and 3 Outer Critics Choice Awards.
Kirsten Childs, Lyricist, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (1952- )
Kirsten Childs is a playwright, librettist, and former actress and dancer from Los Angeles, California. Her theatrical career began when Bob Fosse cast her in Chicago (which also starred Chita Rivera); she also appeared in Dancin’ and Sweet Charity, among other productions. She later turned her attention to writing her own theatrical works, including her semi-autobiographical musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. She is the winner of the Edward Kleban Award, a Jonathan Larson Grant, a Rockefeller Foundation Multi-Arts Production Fund Grant, and a Richard Rodgers Development Award in 1999, as well as the recipient of an Audelco Award, a Richard Rodgers Production Award, a Lucille Lortel award nomination, three Drama Desk nominations, and an Obie award in 2000. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which was part of New York City Center’s 2017 Encores! is a humorous and pointed coming-of-age story spanning the sixties through the nineties, as our protagonist blithely sails through the confusing worlds of racism, sexism and Broadway showbiz until she’s forced to face the devastating effect self-denial has had on her life.
In addition to being a seasoned playwright, Childs has written songs for celebrated jazz singer Dianne Reeves and also teaches in NYU Tisch’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program.
Michael R. Jackson, Composer and Lyricist, A Strange Loop (1981- )
Michael R. Jackson and his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop took home the 2022 Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical earlier this month. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Jackson is a playwright and songwriter whose work has been performed everywhere from Joe’s Pub to NAMT. He wrote lyrics and co-wrote a book for the musical adaptation of the 2007 horror film Teeth with composer and co-book writer Anna K. Jacobs. He also has written the book, music, and lyrics for the musical White Girl In Danger. Jackson is well-decorated, receiving numerous awards and recognitions, including a Jonathan Larson Grant, a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, an ASCAP Foundation Harold Adamson Award, a Dramatist Guild Fellowship, and more.
18 years in the making, A Strange Loop, is a groundbreaking metafictional musical that follows a black queer writer writing a musical about a black queer writer writing a musical while dealing with internalized homophobia, religious parents and his own self-doubt.