Date: 10/23/1961 - 11/18/1961 (32 Performances)
Location: 54th Street Theatre
Produced by: Alfred De Liagre, Jr.
Directed by: Robert Lewis
Music by: Richard Adler
Choreographed by: Agnes De Mille
Also Starring: Sally Ann Howes, Ethel Ayler, Norman Barrs, Rex Ingram, Brock Peters
Terry's Character: Kwamina (Peter) - singer (title role)
Genre: Musical / Original
Plot Summary: In the early 1950's Richard Adler and his writing partner Jerry Ross delivered two of Broadway's most enduring hit musicals: Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game. Both featured great soaring melodies, complex vocal arrangements and terrific ensemble performances.
Sadly, Jerry Ross died in 1955, at the height of Damn Yankees success (it would sweep the Tony Awards in June of '56). Richard Adler reluctantly soldiered on amid speculation that Ross had been the real talent in the partnership. Following Ross's death, Adler took a great interest in African music, and was eventually drawn to the idea of doing a Broadway musical based on African forms.
The result was 1961's Kwamina, a story about Kwamina Mwalla, the son of an African chief who goes to Great Britain to be educated, then returns to his native land just as it is acheiving independence to bring it into the modern age, and eventually falls in love with a (white) British doctor who works in his village. Kwamina tackles themes of assimilation, nationalism, race and interracial love, and the clash between modernism and traditionalism.
Heavy stuff for Broadway, especially from one of the guys who brought us two of the Great White Way's most innocuous works.
Surely, Rodgers and Hammerstein had tackled some of these themes in South Pacific, The King and I, and Flower Drum Song, but despite those musicals' exotic settings and controversial story lines, musically, they still followed the standards of the American musical theatre tradition.
What Adler attempted with Kwamina was an unprecedented integration of African musical forms with the Broadway tradition. The daring of this proposition in 1961 (at the height of the Civil Rights movement and 25 years before Graceland made African music fashionable) is not to be underestimated.
The score of Kwamina gets off to a thrilling start with the loping Cocoa Bean Song, which features layers of harmonic vocal parts, vividly evoking the vitality of the cocoa bean pickers and their village. The music practically dances out of the speakers, and immediately makes the listener part of its world. One can only imagine what a thrill this was to see on stage 40 plus years ago.
Welcome Home and The Sun is Beginning to Crow are both celebratory numbers marking Kwamina's return from Europe, both combining an African flavor with Broadway production.
Did You Hear That? and You're as English as... are reminiscent of the confrontations between Anna and the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.
Surprisingly, the score is most successful on the more African flavored numbers such as the inspiring and dynamic Something Big, and the comical culture clash numbers Seven Sheep, Four Red Shirts, and a Bottle of Gin and the lovely One Wife, in which the women of Kwamina's villa ge bemoan the fate of a woman who insists she be her husband's one and only. (Very bad, very bad, very sad / Any one who want to be just one wife must be mad)
The more conventional numbers are also the least vital. While Broadway ballads like the duets Nothing More To Look Forward To and Ordinary People have lovely melodies and are well sung by the show's stars Sally Ann Howes and Terry Carter, they lack the visceral excitement of the more exotic numbers. Ironically, it's the most African of the numbers that capture the Broadway thrill the best.
Kwamina, though daring, was doomed to failure, and opening and closing in less than a month (32 performances) in the fall of 1961. It's cast album barely charted on Billboard (peaking at #139) at a time when Broadway cast albums were Billboard's blockbusters, as big as Eminem is now.
Angel Records re-released the album on CD in the early 90s, but even that release is now extremely rare and expensive (selling for $65 at the time of this writing).
The Cocoa Bean Song (Ako, Singers and the Company)
One Wife (Mammy Trader, Alla, Singers and Dancers)