This sample has been excerpted from a longer paper for reasons of space.
Distance in Cabin in the Sky and Lost in the Stars
By Sarah Dray
The 1940s signaled an important transition in American musical theater. Gone were the days when good scores, jokes, and stars were all that were needed to sell a show. Instead, self--consciousness began its musical career, transforming musical art forms into substantive productions in which every detail combined to perfect the whole. Marking the beginning and end of this decade are Cabin in the Sky (1940) and Lost in the Stars (1949), two musicals incorporating portrayals of the black man and his relationship to Christian religion. While the shows' respective presentations are radically different, they both create an aura of distance between the story and the audience. This detachment meant success for one but defeat for the other. ...
Cabin in the Sky was fondly labeled a Negro fantasy musical, a description primarily owing to Lynn Root's book. It is hard to know Root's intention in creating the book for Cabin in the Sky. If there was an aim other than to achieve a successful and entertaining show, it is hard to grasp it.
The story is told in the manner...which has been from time immemorial the method of all folk takes, wherein heaven and hell are pictured in terms of ordinary living, and the struggle between good and evil is personified by husky red devils and white--clad angelic legions battling for the soul of man (Gilder, 842).
Herein, the play's incorporation of the Christian religion manifests itself in fantastical, if timeless, images of God and Satan. This use of stereotypical Christian images illustrates the mythological character of the portrayal of religion. In religious studies, myths function iconographically, pointing to a hidden reality about the cosmological world through stories about super--human beings, ancestors, or heroes. According to Mircea Eliade, myths order a man's life by providing models (in the form of super--human beings) "for all the rites and significant human activities - subsistence or marriage as well as work, education, art, or knowledge " (2). In Cabin, the Christian myth orders the musical microcosm, with the forces of good and evil personified through The Lord's General and the Devil's Head Man. These characters are the models according to which Petunia and Little Joe pattern the activities of their lives.
This mythological approach to religion is significant because it interposes distance between the play and its audience. Although myths attempt to impose some sense of order upon the world, the legendary nature of the stories is often difficult to view realistically. Correspondingly, Cabin's mythical treatment of Christianity succeeds in creating an unrealistic atmosphere in which the fantastical story merely entertains rather than engages its audience.
This detachment from the heaven/hell fantasy of Cabin is also attributable to its specifically "Negro" identity. It is possible to view the entire story as something particular to Black culture. Lynn Root's book is more about the Negro experience of God and religion than the human experience. Written by three white men, Cabin, in its attention to Negro spiritual life, treats the Black person in a simplistic manner, making him more of an object as opposed to a person with whom the audience might identify. Consequently, a white audience might not engage with the subject matter at all, but rather with the mere entertainment value proffered by the talented portrayal of Negro spiritual life.
This became painfully evident in the attempted 1964 revival. When the musical was revived in 1964, Howard Taubman, in his New York Times review article, claimed that a revival of Cabin, no matter how tasteful, would have problems.
For the climate has changed radically. A fantasy in which the Negro is treated like a simple child of nature, moving and talking and sinning and shouting in ways that have become annoying stereotypes, is not so palatable as it was in the seemingly more innocent year of 1940 (Taubman 1964).
Taubman accurately captured the difficulty of the musical. Any revival of Cabin is going to struggle with its portrayal of African Americans. The musical does not attempt to deal with racial issues in a meaningful context. The creators of Cabin were unconcerned with fostering a more egalitarian environment through the production of a musical. Cabin is merely a depiction of Negro spiritual culture that is intended to entertain. Although the show does not contain a direct comment on its subject matter, implicit in its fantastical treatment of the themes is a judgment of both blacks and religion. It fails to take either seriously. While this was not offensive and was even entertaining in 1940, it would not be so warmly welcomed upon the stage now.
Thus, although Cabin offered nothing new in its portrayal of religion, and implicitly sustained racial prejudice, it functioned well for what it was: "a charming, unworldy picture of the Negro South" (Bordman, 521). And during the war--threatening time of 1940, Cabin in the Sky provided Broadway--goers with just what they wanted: a fantastical, yet self--consciously complete musical allowing its audience an evening of detached entertainment.
At the close of the decade, Lost in the Stars, on the other hand, failed to engender vast audience approval or notable artistic success. It is nearly a polar opposite of Cabin in the Sky, which opened the decade with a Negro fantasy musical, while Lost in the Stars closed it with a musical tragedy.
Lost in the Stars takes seriously all that Cabin made light and fantastical. Cabin had an all--Black cast, but this did not facilitate racial progress. It preserved the distance between the white and Black man, allowing prejudices to remain and possibly even enhancing them through its communication of the simplistic nature of Negro spiritual life. Contrarily, in Lost in the Stars, racial tensions drove the plot, making it a controversial work that aimed to convey a strong social message rather than to purely entertain. Lost in the Stars, with its racially--mixed cast, forced Broadway audiences to engage with the issue of race on an intimate level.
Kurt Weill, the composer of Lost in the Stars, certainly intended to deal with racial issues. He indicated to Harry Gilroy that Lost in the Stars communicates something he had "been groping to express for several years" (Gilroy 1949). However, his audience, post--WWII America, who was still trying to cope with its own racism in the wake of the horrors of the holocaust, was not ready to engage with the self--introspection for which Weill's work called. Thus, the intense racial message of Lost in the Stars isolated its audience. Americans were not yet ready to examine or change their own prejudices, and as a result distanced themselves from what might have been perceived as the rather threatening egalitarian message of Weill's work. This is evident in the actions of Washington's National Theater, which voluntarily closed in 1948 rather than lift its "no coloreds downstairs" rule (Suskin, 403).
Weill further distanced his audience from the piece through the secondary thematic treatment of faith in the Christian God. In fact, it is this religious undercurrent towards which Weill pitches most of his musical climaxes, easing the way for the potentially controversial religious message that perhaps God does not exist (Swayne, 28). Stephen Kumalo is a pastor in the Anglican church in his village. His journey to Johannesburg, and the subsequent trial he endures along with his son, causes him great grief and a sense of disillusionment with what he had imagined life and the world to be. In Lost in the Stars, this is most powerfully communicated through the title song, which, in Mr. Weill's own words, says that "we're all here on the same little planet, floating along in the universe, and we're all lost in the stars" (Gilroy). Here, Weill and Maxwell Anderson, the lyricist, also mythically characterize religion, although in a sense decidedly unlike that of Cabin. While in Cabin in the Sky, myth functions in what I will call the high, religious sense of ordering the universe through iconographic figures, in Lost in the Stars, God has become a myth in the low or ordinary sense of a fictitious or imaginary character or story. Weill forces his audience to ponder the possibility that God is simply a fabrication of the mind.
Unfortunately, this was not what Alan Paton had intended to communicate in his novel. "'It is quite true that Stephen Kumalo, when he learned that his son had killed a man, suffered a sense of God's desolation, but this was not the theme of my book'" (Swayne, 19). Paton's comment clearly indicates that, while Weill and Anderson succeeded in creating an artistic piece involving racial contentions, they did not really understand the heart of their story. Robert Garland, in his Journal--American review article, states that there is "too much of words and music, production and direction, scenery and costume. And group singing! Most of it is good, some of it is excellent. But the beauty and simplicity of Cry, the Beloved Country infrequently comes through" (quoted in Suskin, 402). In the Post, Richard Watt, Jr. writes,, "There is indeed very little lacking in Lost in the Stars save inspiration" (quoted in Suskin, 403). Weill and Anderson's failure to connect with the essence of their story is betrayed by their inclusion of songs previously composed for a different musical, Ulysses Africanus, a musical with a black lead for which Weill could not find an actor (Swayne, 5). Thus, they simply used the old songs for the new story but in doing so created an undercurrent of existentialism in a story that more accurately described a journey towards spiritual maturity. The inclusion of a Greek--like chorus underscored their lack of understanding of the book's message and further alienated the audience. The chorus engendered a "depersonalizing force" (Swayne 18) in the show by commenting on the action, thereby functioning as an intermediary between the characters and the audience, and detaching its viewers from the universal aspect of the terrific tragedy of racism. Although Weill must have hoped that Lost in the Stars would be a Lehrstck, provoking at least introspective questioning, he unfortunately prevented any possibility of widespread egalitarian thought by estranging his audience from the essence of Paton's story.
In conclusion, the two musicals present light, entertaining subject matter on the one hand, and dark, serious tragedy on the other, both repelling rather than inviting realistic emotional involvement with the work. Cabin does not have enough substance to engage the audience's emotion, while Lost in the Stars has the wrong kind of substance. Furthermore, there is a distance between man and God in both works. In Cabin, God is highly stylized, replete with the appropriate Christian mythological accoutrements. And although Petunia is a developed woman with a powerful prayer life, there is little sense of closeness between her and the Lord. He is rather this benevolent entity, far removed from man. In Lost in the Stars, God is portrayed as being removed from man as well, His distance manifesting itself in Stephen Kumalo's disillusionment or struggle with his seemingly ephemeral faith. Finally, both musicals will most likely remain confined within musical history. For while Lost in the Stars had much more potential to grace the Broadway stage time and again with a tale of racial tension, paternal anguish, and religious maturity, its inattentiveness to the soul of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, will hinder any revival. Similarly, Cabin in the Sky was simply a musical for its generation and will remain a treasure firmly secured in the past.
- Atkinson, Brooks. "The Play." The New York Times. October 26, 1940.
- Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Theater: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
- Eliade, Mircea. "The Presige of the Cosmogonic Myth." Religion 1 Source Book. Fall term, 1997. 1--11.
- Gilder, Rosamond. "In the Groove." Theatre Arts. December 24, 1940. p 841--847.
- Gilroy, Harry. "Written in the Stars." The New York Times. October 30, 1949.
- Suskin, Steven. Opening Night on Broadway. New York: Schrimer Books, 1990.
- Swayne, Steve. "What Got Lost in Lost in the Stars." Unpublished paper.
- Taubman, Howard. "Theater: Cabin in the Sky." New York Times. January 22, 1964.
Copyright © 2004 Dartmouth College