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Behind The Scenes

Broadway Black History: Remembering Cole and Johnson

J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole are two names that are, sadly, not as talked about in most theater history classes, but their contribution to the Broadway stage is invaluable. Both were multi-hyphenate artists whose impact in arts and activism still resonates today. With more recent productions celebrating the early age of Broadway and many 20th century classic shows planning to be revived, it is important to know the key players of this time in American theater history.

John Rosamond c&jJohnson (1873-1954) was a Florida born composer who is best known for his song Lift Every Voice and Sing which went on to be known as the “Black National Anthem”. His brother, James Weldon Johnson, penned the lyrics. The two brothers travelled to New York City in 1899 to pursue a life in show business where they met composer Bob Cole (1868-1911). Cole had already seen some success with the vaudeville group, Black Patti Troubadours, and with his first creative partner, Billy Johnson; but an end to that relationship saw Cole in need of a new collaborator.

Cole and the Johnson brothers created their own vaudeville act in 1901 in which they performed their original compositions and dances. These shows led to the wildly successful song, Under the Bamboo Tree. The royalties from their songs and vaudeville shows gave them the means to produce something on a larger scale. In 1906, The Shoo-Fly Regiment, an all-black operetta, debuted on Broadway. The two wrote, produced, and starred in the show, and did the same two years later in The Red Moon. Cole and Johnson collaborated on many more songs and projects until Cole’s death in 1911.c&j_red_moon

Johnson went on to star in more Broadway productions such as Porgy and Bess and Cabin In the Sky, as well as compose hundreds of spirituals and musical theater songs. These type of creative ventures were prevalent in the early age of Broadway, especially among the underrepresented in the theater. The work of Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson inspired the Harlem Renaissance, the Golden Age of Broadway, and the appreciation of the theatrical tradition; for this, we celebrate them.

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