Music History

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Write about three musicals that we have studied that engage with the topic of race and ethnicity in America, drawing parallels and comparisons between the three and noting contrasts. The American Musical has often been used as a medium in which uncomfortable issues were boldly addressed. This has been the case for the issue of race and ethnicity in America, in particular the following musicals: Show Boat, Memphis, and West Side Story. The first two musicals addressed the issue of the integration of African Americans into American culture, with Show Boat, set in the early 1900s, focusing on the difficulty of true racial blending in America, and with Memphis, set in the 1950s, focusing on the still difficult task of desegregating black and whites in America despite the later time period. West Side Story also focuses on race issues during the 1950s, but between Puerto Ricans and Whites. The three musicals all attempt to achieve a peaceful blend of races, but are similar in that they all fall short or fail. All three musicals make use of failed marriage tropes, possibly implying the failure of attempting to integrate races in America, at least during that time period. However, the reasons for which the interracial couples fail in each musical are different, which makes each musical unique. Also, the musical numbers serve to further emphasize the attempts at solving the problem of racial discrimination in America.

Show Boat focuses on the impossibility of racial integration in America during the early 1900’s. The powerful song “Ol’ Man River” is sung by Joe, a black dock worker. The song is sung in the “black” dialect, with the pronunciation of potato as “’taters,” and saying them as “’em.” In this number, Joe reflects on the indifference of others, in particular whites, on the plight of him and his fellow black workers. This reveals the injustice towards blacks, but also the resigned apathy the blacks are unfortunately feeling. In addition, Show Boat follows...
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