I have always been a big fan of live theater, particularly Broadway. So when I found out that acclaimed producer Stewart Lane had just published Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way, I knew that I wanted to check out the former Great Neck resident’s latest book. Along with being the author of Let’s Put on a Show and Jews on Broadway, Stewart, whose nickname is Mr. Broadway, has spent the past 50 years involved in various aspects of theater while winning six Tony Awards along the way for some pretty notable shows, including War Horse and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Sure enough, I couldn’t put Black Broadway down until I’d gotten through all 275 pages. And while I knew about artists like Lena Horne and Sammy Davis, Jr., it was really interesting to learn about people I wasn’t necessarily familiar with, like Eubie Blake, Bert Williams and Lorraine Hansberry.
Starting with the African-American theater in the 19th century, Stewart takes the reader all the way through present-day Broadway and Broadway of the future. Along with the endless number of photos, sidebars and other blurbs are nontheatrical events, such as the founding of the NAACP and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, that provide some insight into of the struggle African Americans have endured. So it’s really fitting that it was released during Black History Month. With so much going on in the book, I was curious to learn what inspired Stewart to go through with this project.
“When I wrote Jews on Broadway, which centered on the Jewish contribution to the American theater, one of the many things that I learned in writing that book was how important it is to get a mixture of ethnicity in the creative process. That’s where conflicts seem to abound,” he explained to me. “No one had written a book about the African-American contribution to the Broadway arena. Rudy Shur, the publisher at Square One in Garden City, shared my vision. He said he would publish the book if I wrote it. So I dove in and it took about a year and a half to two years to get it together. And then it took about another year to refine it and get all the photos. But I felt that there was a story there. Frankly, when I started out, I didn’t know how much and how rich it was going to be. But the material turned out to be a lot more than I ever dreamed of.”
Stories of struggles—and success through talent and perseverance—pop up throughout Black Broadway. I couldn’t help but wonder what Stewart came away with once he was finished writing.
“I was impressed with the tenacity and talent of the people involved. They talk about a meritocracy that if you have the voice or the dancing ability, you’re welcome. And I think that’s what makes New York and Broadway so successful. We accept the talent. If the costume fits, you’re hired,” he said. “There were problems and challenges, but all of a sudden, theater has become a reflection of what America was at that time and we’ve continued to do that. The good news is that it gets better and better as you go on. It’s that kind of reflection of what’s going on in America that makes it all the more important as a book because it tells us about ourselves. It also sets the trajectory as to where we’re going.”